less than ideal

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.
-Carl Jung


The problem with idealism is that it seems to us like such a good and useful thing. We believe that to  hold “high ideals” equals that somehow we are being a better person and that the only alternative to being idealistic is to be passive or even nihilistic. We all feel that we can clearly see what is “wrong” with the world (and it usually turns out that what we think is “wrong” is that other people aren’t doing what we think they ought to be doing) and that it would be a simple thing to correct the wrong . . . if only things worked the way we feel they ought to. The problem quickly becomes obvious when we discover that everyone else has their own idealism and that it, shockingly, almost never seems to match our own at all.

I have a good many friends who are wonderful people, generous and kind and whose beliefs match my own and yet they are often shocked to find out that I can not join them in strongly speaking out for this or that cause. I fear that some of them take this the same way they take anyone who does not share their fervor, they may assume that I am passive, lazy, or ignorant. One of the common traits of idealism is the belief that if “they” only knew what “we” know then they could not help but to be outraged! And outrage seems to be the main product of idealism. I try to tell them that I do believe I am helping by first being as good of a person as I can be, but because I’m not shouting or engaging in some extreme rhetoric it looks like I’m just not concerned enough.

The plain fact is that an ideal is simply  a construct, a conceptual exercise in trying to force the world into a configuration that we find acceptable. On its own an ideal is a grand thing, in fact as long as we hold ourselves to our ideals we tend to create and do wonderful things, unfortunately the moment we project that ideal outward it turns from a motivator and noble goal into a poison. We are seldom satisfied to uphold our ideals personally, we wish to see them applied everywhere by everyone and so immediately suffering is the result. The idealistic vegetarian is angry that everyone isn’t a vegetarian, the idealistic conservative is angry that everyone isn’t conservative and they share the common ground of feeling uncomfortable in their own world as long as other folks exist who do not share their ideal.

We have only the best intentions, we genuinely feel that our way will lead to everyone being happier, and we truly think that the “other side” would agree if only they knew what we know. The common denominator in the former sentence is that all those things are feelings. Thoughts. Constructs of our minds, products of our conditioning, the electrical and chemical stew of our brains and we tend to believe that every secretion of that 4 pound lump of tissue is Reality. It isn’t. It might be our personal reality (small ‘r’) but the fact is that there is a true reality outside of our concepts and limited world view that is wholly independent of all the junk we feel makes our thoughts so very real. Real reality doesn’t care about our ideals and it doesn’t have a “side” to take.

Consider this, every nation believes it is the good guy. Not one government that has ever existed has thought of itself as the “evil” one. Even those groups which have participated in rape, murder, slavery, mass deception, tyranny, and pillage beyond our ability to even accept still thought of themselves as the ‘good guys”. The Nazis believed that they were saving their people by the disgusting slaughter of entire races of people who had done nothing to harm them, the French Revolutionaries thought they were protecting liberty and equality by executing tens of thousands who, they feared, didn’t agree with the new “freedom” of France. The confederacy asserted that it was protecting its heritage and way of life by keeping other human beings as slaves, while the Spanish missionaries thought they were saving the souls of poor unfortunate South Americans by torturing and murdering them by the hundreds. None of these people believed they were on the wrong side of history. They all had, in their own awful way, “high ideals”.

This then is the problem, as long as we can not see the reality, the truth, outside of our concepts, outside of our upbringing and conditioning, as long as we are all too fallibly human, then our ideals when applied to other people will end in some form of suffering. It feels good to be sure of our thoughts, its intoxicating to be sooooo right while “those people” are so clearly deluded and stupid. We define ourselves, we call ourselves a “tea-party-er” or an “anarchist” or a “Baptist” or a “buddhist” and then we take on all the acting that such a role entails. Eventually people get hurt when our role demands it, sometimes they get killed.

So what do we do? Am i suggesting that we sit back and just let bad things happen? Do we disavow all beliefs and ideals? Should we cynically ignore the outside world? To think so is simply a swing to the other extreme. There is not one choice or the other, this kind of dualistic thinking (your either for us or against us!) is just another false ideal. The solution, as it so often is, seems to be in the middle. The mushy, boring middle ground. The Middle path of applying our ideals wholly, firmly, and with great passion to ourselves. It requires that we first and foremost take that long difficult look into our own hearts and minds and to try to get a taste of the truth without all the filters we are carrying. It means that we examine our own beliefs all the way to the core. So, If I am a vegetarian because I believe that animals should be protected and treated kindly then am I also treating and protecting all the human animals I meet the same way? Am I as kind to the bus driver or to the cop, or my annoying uncle as I would like everyone to be to a cow or sheep or pet? If not then I am not living up to my ideal as a vegetarian for animal rights.

And on the other hand if I am a conservative christian am I living to the ideal of Jesus? Do I believe that all gods creatures deserve love and peace even those who are gay or choose to have an abortion? If I am a true conservative Christian then shouldn’t I apply that same restraint  I would like to see in others to myself? If I have hate for those who are different from me then I’m not really living up to my ideal as a conservative christian.

It is much harder to really and truly apply our ideals to ourselves, it is terribly, dangerously, easy to see how everyone else “ought” to be acting and yet we can seldom ever actually do it ourselves. The funny thing is that when we really and truly take that honest look at the world as it is, when we apply the best wishes we have for others to ourselves first, a strange thing happens. All those big problems, all those things outside that make us so uncomfortable in the world begin to take care of themselves. As if by magic the act of cleaning up our own messy backyards leads to everyone else doing the same. The final irony of an ideal is that we can’t force anyone to accept ours, and yet when we truly embody a noble ideal then  people are attracted to it without us having to hit them over the head with it.

It’s not as fun as reinforcing our sense of self and separateness, but if we honestly want our ideal to become a reality is has to start with each of us questioning the very thing we believe in so strongly.

Categories: Buddhism and life | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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