The Idealist and the Realist Within Me

Friday, May 15, 2015 - 6:31am
Photo by Paul McGeiver

The Idealist and the Realist Within Me

My favorite class in college was Introduction to Political Theory. Professor Dennis Dalton, a Gandhi scholar with a line of students always snaking around the corner during his office hours, structured the course around two competing schools of political philosophy: idealism and realism.

Plato urged us to emerge from our cave of delusion and step out into the light. He told us:

“Love is the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the Gods.”

Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, wasn’t feeling the love. He suspected that people’s natural passions “carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.”

Mary Wollstonecraft chimed in:

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”

As did Niccolò Machiavelli:

“It is much more secure to be feared than loved.”

By the end of the semester, my head was spinning and my earnest heart felt in good and ancient, if not controversial, company.

There are a lot of people who argue that liberal arts education doesn’t give students any real world skills, but I can tell you that no other educational experience has served me more in my life than this one. I spend some part of every single day, facilitating an endless debate between the idealist and the realist in my own brain. And let me tell you, it is rarely a cordial conversation.

The idealist wants to work with noble people on projects that entail a process that honors the collaborators involved at every step of the way and leads to a result that feels triumphant and pure. The realist knows that this doesn’t exist, at least not at any speed or scale. Collaborators are human beings, and human beings are occasionally hypocritical (sometimes blindly, sometimes unabashedly). The idealist wants to run from hypocrisy, but the realist reminds her that this means also running from imperfect people, and all people, it turns out are deservedly and beautifully imperfect.

The idealist shouts, “Integrity! I will not attach my good name or devote my precious energy to anything that doesn’t have integrity through and through!” The realist chuckles and answers, “Good luck with that! While you maintain moral superiority, good people will go hungry.” She pushes to focus on outcomes — how much change can I make with the impure opportunities I’ve got? Get real and get results.

“But at what cost?” the idealist spits back. “Sometimes the ends don’t justify the means. Sometimes the unintended side effects of principled people who compromise and compromise and compromise are worse than no effort at all.”

The idealist wants to see the whole system change, work from the roots, keep the faith. The realist agrees systemic change is necessary, but thinks it’s unwise to bank on it. Keep pushing incremental change. Keep chipping away. Waste no will.

Demonstrators organized by the Young Gifted & Black Coalition pass the home of Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin, who was killed after officer Matt Kenny responded to a several calls claiming Robinson was acting disorderly and violent. Kenny claims he was assaulted by Robinson and shot him in self defense.

(Scott Olson / Getty Images.)

The idealist wants to work with people who share her values and work on projects slow and small enough that they can be controlled. The realist wants to collaborate promiscuously, focused more on doing as much as she can with her limited time on earth, experimenting and focusing on the good things that come out of those experiments even when they feel very complicated.

The idealist wants to do every single thing excellently, moving slow enough to treasure the process and be exceedingly thoughtful about every choice. The realist knows that this would mean doing far fewer things, and further, that too often attention to excellence crosses the line into over-thinking. She likes George Jackson on this:

“Patience has its limits. Take it too far and it’s cowardice.”

Sometimes the best piece of writing is the second draft, not the tenth.

The idealist sees the best in everybody. The realist recognizes that people have their limitations.

The idealist wants to create beautiful things. The realist wants to pay the mortgage.

The idealist hopes for the moon and the stars. The realist is fine with making lemonade here on earth.

The pendulum swings, back and forth, back and forth ad infinitum. Even as it exhausts me, I know that it’s healthy — a sign that I am awake. I don’t want to simply assume that I’m using my energy in the best way and go on autopilot. I want to keep questioning, keep experimenting, keep dreaming, keep doubting.

Professor Dalton also taught me, via Socrates, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Turns out, staying awake to the moral complexities of my actions requires refereeing a very passionate cacophony of voices in my own head. Living the examined life is not a quiet prospect.

Professor Dennis Dalton gives his talk at TEDCity2.0.

(TED)

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

She is currently working on a book titled The New Better Off, exploring how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their baby girl Maya. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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Idealism and Realism are metaphysical isms that may underlie political agendas. One can be both as Descartes and Liebnitz were. BTW: When I was a student back at MIT from 1969 and 1973 (during the Vietnam war) course 17 or polysci was just an escape hatch for people who could not cut the mustard in the engineering and science disciplines.Socrates was an ethics teacher and he left the science issues to other Ancient Greeks like Aristotle. :)

Thank you for this story , Courtney! Brought back memories of student orientation at Antioch College in 1953 when the "agra" was on the steps of the science building. A sign was posted nearby with Socrates' message that the "unexamined life is not worth living". And we had several "Dennis Daltons" to inspire us. The past sixty years have been a mix of idealism and realism for me..

You've articulated so well what has been plaguing me almost my whole life. I just realized that I've labeled my idealist self as the overachiever, and my realist self is the underachiever. As one can imagine, this is just a recipe for never feeling good enough. It's actually a relief to realize that I don't have to be one or the other, but that the importance lies in the conversation between the two. Believing the idealist to be the better, more morally righteous side, and my inability to be perfect and live up to it has always left me feeling not good enough. Thank you for normalizing the conversation for me...this seems so much more fun and interesting than what I've been trying to maintain!

As is never a coincidence, I was just thinking about this dynamic... in the context of an ideal blog post. Ideally, I long to explore some lofty theoretical concept, while realistically, the maximize-re-tweetership thing to do would be to skim a topic in three snappy tips.

I don't think that this conflict between realism and idealism is always as you pictured it. Idealism can be seeing something as being worst than it really is, therefore, being a realist might be the "good guy" sometimes.

I wonder who will win in the end ? The idealist or the realist ? :)

I had a conversation with my 23 year old daughter about this (less succinctly) earlier tonight. I told her I was still learning, at the age of 52 years, to balance 'aggression and empathy'. We diverted when my daughter talked passionately about many aggressive people being cowards, and passive people being truly brave. We realized the vocabulary we were using wasn't quite what we meant, but we understood each other anyway. I wish I had thought of 'idealist' and 'realist' - I would've felt less frustrated.
For our purposes, she kept arguing that my life-long mode of being the idealist was an admirable trait - I was always fair and empathetic and caring. I was trying to relay to her that without finding the right degree of resistance, my idealistic nature was damaging to myself and those I loved in too many situations. There has to be resistance in passivity or it's just carpet time.

I'm grateful I found your site tonight anyway.