Idealism and Realism


Are you an idealist or a realist? I’ve concluded I’m both. I know that doesn’t make sense, but when has that stopped me before? I’m going to try to argue that we can be both…and that maybe we need to be,

There’s who we hope to be and who we are. There’s what we’d like to do and what we actually do. There’s how we want to see the world, the world we live in–and the world we hope to see.

Let’s take the last one. By “how we want to see the world” I mean what we wish the world were like and choosing to see only (or mostly) what we desire to see, rather than what actually is. “Wishful thinking” is the nice term for it, but there are others. “The world we live in” is what objectively is and happens here. “The world we hope to see” means beginning with the world that is, as accurately as we can perceive it, and then starting in with what we can improve. Though “how we want to see the world” and “the world we hope to see” sound similar, in practice they are near opposites. If you prefer bluntness, call the first “denial” and the latter “activism”–or even “seeking the Kingdom of God.”

None of us have a 100% accurate view of the world we live in. We don’t know all that goes on, good or bad. We know a smidge of the things that happen and we know only what goes through our own heads, not what’s running through anyone else’s. In fact, we don’t even know why a lot of that stuff plays in our minds. Our understanding is limited. To put it mildly.

So let’s try to be honest, just for a moment: when we do something kind, we have complex, competing motives. You and I can’t even isolate all these motives. Some of them relate to how you, at age four, interacted with your mother–or didn’t. I think attempting to identify each impulse and motive would be both impossible and exhausting. But I want us to face the implications here: we’re a mystery, even to ourselves.

Have you caught yourself in the midst of an action and thought, “What am I doing? I don’t even want to do this!” I’m talking about the whole range of our decisions: how you react in a conversation, reaching for another donut, or agreeing to a social activity you have no desire to participate in with people whom you’d prefer to avoid.* Or have you ever stopped and really heard the voice in your own head berating you and asked, “Wait! I know that doesn’t help. Why am I saying this to myself?”

I know this is abstract for some of you–and you might not even know why you’re still reading this blog post–but here’s my point: I think we need to carry a balance of idealism and realism. If we begin by recognizing our limitations and all we don’t know, we have a better chance to find this balance.

The world sucks. It really does. It may not suck for you, and I hope it doesn’t, but for a lot of people, it’s brutal, cold, and unforgiving. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the six-year-old girl selling ice cream from the little push cart while her father is off getting drunk. Again. I’ve seen her twelve-year-old sister now pregnant, and their cycle of poverty, hers and her babies, almost absolutely guaranteed.

Is that your problem? If I told you her name and shared her picture, would it become your problem? Is she your neighbor, in the sense that Jesus spoke when he answered the lawyers question, “And who is my neighbor?”

I wish I had good answers for you. I have opinions. I want to live in a world in which all six-year-olds can play and learn and don’t have to spend days standing in the hot sun or carrying a bag of tortillas to sell door-to-door, then go home ot drunken fathers who take the money they’ve earned and drink it away the next day. If I can make that change, if I can impact toward that change, for one girl, I’ve helped the world become a little more what I hope to see. Another world is possible, as Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way have said.

To start to make that change, we have to open our eyes and admit that her life is much harder than ours. We have to accept that she matters, her life matters, that she is related to us in a signficant way, that it isn’t someone else’s problem to solve. We have to acknowledge that we possess resources that can help her. (If you felt your grip on your wallet tightening as you read that, I just want you to look at your motives and your situation and be honest with yourself.) We have to decide if using our resources to attempt to help her is worth it to us and then we have to choose how we use those resources to try to help. Do we go to where she is and interact with her directly? Do we find out who is working close to where she lives and give to their work? Do we figure out where she goes to school and look for a way to support that school? Do we support the recovery group in that area so that they have a better chance to reach out to the father?

Damn, it’s complicated. We also need to admit that we can try one or all of these means to help this girl and still her life may not change. Or, even more tragically, her damage by now may be such that, even if she receives significant help and the opportunity to live a different, more nurturing and secure life, she may make choices that put her–or her children–right back in similar circumstances.

If I have your head spinning a bit, I’m sincerely not sorry. This is our world. I get that this is why many people choose not to do anything–“How do I really know it will help?” You don’t. People are complex and problems have deep roots and trying to make a difference is always a risky venture. That is the way of the world and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

Being realistic and idealistic means accepting the risks and trying, anyway. That’s how I understand the balance.

“Faith is perception. It is how we see. If we see the world around us as nothing but darkness–a darkness we believe we cannot change–then darkness is what we get. But if we see darkness while we believe in light–a light we cannot yet see but know is there–then we get something new; we get possibility–the possibility of change. It all comes down to trust.” Steven Charleston, Ladder to the Light

Realism is knowing my limitations. Idealism–or call it “faith,” if you prefer–is believing that what small resources I have to offer can make a difference. Realism is understanding that I can’t fix everything and I can wipe myself out by trying. Idealism is understanding that there are good people in the world and I can join them in trying to make a differnce and together we can change the world. Perhaps not fix the world. But address the problems and impact real people’s lives for good, alleviate real suffering and offer better futures. Offer a way out of the cycle of abuse and poverty and more abuse for this girl.

Do you know what word we use for that work of hope? “Justice.”

It’s not just an optional act of charity in the world for me to do what I can to help that little girl. What she suffers is unjust–no six-year-old should suffer that way–and God’s justice, the God who loves her as father and mother and friend and savior–demands, not requests, that we make that stop.

Oh. “Demands?” Well, yeah. Or “commands,” if you prefer.

Realism balances with idealism to seek justice. You and I are called to seek justice for the widow, the orphan, the abused child, the rape victim (I trust you didn’t imagine the twelve-year-old girl I described above was making autonomous, consensual decisions), the neighbor suffering from racism, the abused wife whose husband is a church elder. Damn, life is complicated. Realism comes in when we accept that we can do some, not all, but we are called to do some, not optional, not extra credit, not if or when we’re feeling particularly generous.

Realism requires us to discern what we really can do, not what we wish we could–and that merely thinking nice thoughts isn’t actually making any difference. Both. Realism makes us face our limitations and our self-deception. Feeling badly every time we read a news article about trafficking or police abuse or abusive working conditions in sweatshops or meat-packing facilities is the right response but not yet an action that helps change these injustices. Idealism makes us see the better world that is possible, while realism makes us admit that just seeing it in our heads hasn’t moved us there yet!

Or, if you prefer, faith makes us see the better world that is possible. I’ve heard it both ways.

Two concluding thoughts. First, when we weigh on the scales how much difference our actions for justice may make, we must include in the equation that trying to do anything for the positive will change us. I consider this an intersection of idealism and realism. It’s also where we just need to accept Jesus’ grace for our goofy mixed motives. If I’m seeking justice for a little girl with a drunken father, am I just trying to feel like a good person? Well, I am trying to feel like a good person. I’m trying to be a godly person who acts as a neighbor, as commanded. My ego and God’s Spirit convicting me don’t always disentangle easily. But I know, I know, that acting with love in the world will make me more loving, and I’d rather seek to love my neighbors and ask God to help me with my ego than hold back loving in case I’m just doing it for pride. The little girl is hungry. The purity of my motives is not the most important thing.

By faith, I believe Jesus when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Loving others is costly and the more deeply I love, the more I put myself at risk of having my heart ripped, my love taken advantage of…and missing out on all that I could have kept for myself. That’s reality. “Self-protection” and “selfishness” often overlap. But keeping everything for myself, closing myself to others, and “Looking out for number one” is not a realistic way to the good life, no matter what the advertisers tell us. I want to risk loving others and seeking justice where I can and see what happens to me, trusting God that it may hurt but will make me fully alive. I can’t do everything; I need to do something.

Second, caring for others requires caring for ourselves. That’s a series of blog posts unto itself, but for now I want to name accepting our imperfections and limitations as a crucial way to care for ourselves. I don’t like my limitations. I actively dislike that I have great ideas for what I can do and shoddy follow-through on what I do. But here is a deep truth that somehow it took me some time to grasp: hating on myself for my flaws and weaknesses and even my sins does not make me more loving nor more capable of loving others.

We lived in Nicaragua for seven years. I didn’t bring about nearly as much change there as I had hoped or imagined I would or could. I’m a bit of a coward, but we lived in a barrio where some people told us it wasn’t safe for us to live (and others told us we’d quickly learn our lesson and move) and we had some impact there that we could not have had if we had chosen to live somewhere “safer.”

It’s complicated–did I mention life is complicated?–because some of the good we did was bringing our own needs and being available for our neigbhors to love and serve us. The dignity of mutual relationships, rather than people being in poverty solely being “the needy ones” and those with more financial resources exclusively “giving,” requires a higher level of neighboring. It’s riskier and more vulnerable. Accepting our imperfections, our need for support, our limitations, while still seeking the good of, and justice for, our neighbors, is being human.

One more way to think about this: realism is accepting ourselves and others the way we are, which necessitates grace. Idealism is believing the possibility of something better, which requires faith. Of course we can be both realists and idealists, because we are people who live by grace and faith.

*I’d like to meet the person who has never experienced this…but I also suspect that person would scare me, very much.

3 thoughts on “Idealism and Realism

  1. Jeff Heminger

    Wow, Mike. I love everything you’ve said here. Thank you for this perspective on faith and our actions towards our neighbors.

  2. Jim Allyn

    Thank you for equating “activism” with “seeking the Kingdom of God.” Although, realistically, I would call it more like “working to create the Kingdom of God” or “building the Kingdom of God.”

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