Can Idealism Solve Problems?
Most people would say that idealists are unrealistic, unpractical, head-in-the clouds dreamers. Idealism is an approach to life that shifts the focus from solving problems to working for a future that doesn't yet exist. Problems are an inevitable part of living, and solving problems is uniquely human. However, these days, problems seem to be multiplying like unwanted rodents in the human psyche and in the world body politic. This is producing mass pessimism and conflicts, eating away at the roots of civilization. Problems are so dominating life that they are causing a regression into the primitive mentality of living by instinct, driven by fear and self-preservation.
desire to solve problems usually comes from either of two sources: pain
or dissatisfaction. For example, if one has pain, one takes a pain killer;
if one spills something, one wipes it up; if one is overweight, one
goes on a diet, takes weight-loss pills and increases activity; if one
is in debt, one borrows money; if one is attacked, one defends oneself.
This is the way most of us deal with life. We wait until something breaks
before we fix it. Then we eagerly seek the quick-fix and the miracle
cure. Socially and politically our legislators and leaders spend most
of the time arguing about how to fix problems. Approaching problems
from pain and dissatisfaction is reactive and non-progressive. An individual
or a society will never get ahead if it is constantly occupied with
undoing problems and fixing what is broken.
There is another side to proactive which is life-affirming and less self-centered. At its core is idealism, foresight and planning. Instead of living from problem to problem, one lives to realize a goal or a vision of an ideal. With idealism, one envisions a future which is the best one can imagine. A future where pain and suffering is minimized and human fulfillment is maximized. The next step is to work for it, hence, proactive. In a culture where we are used to instant gratification, people become quickly cynical. "Impossible," they say. "You are unrealistic." "This goes against human nature." Yet, our dreams and our ideals are the reason that we live. Frustration comes because we are unsatisfied with having only a piece of our ideal. We want all of it, right now. We lack the staying power because we are result-oriented instead of process-oriented. It is the process of working for an ideal, however, that makes life an adventure and gives us hope.
The process of working for an ideal may not realize the ideal immediately, but it will demonstrate through action, the principles upon which the ideal is based. For example, the non-violent civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not immediately successful in achieving its goals. Nevertheless, it created an image of social action to achieve justice based on American ideals. In his "I Have a Dream" address he gave the image of a unified nation achieving the "American Dream" although it was not yet a reality.
Dr. King's use of non-violence was not the "end justifies the means" approach so prevalent in today's culture of confrontation; it is the "means is the end" mentality which is another way of stating the "Golden Rule." The power and freedom in the human being to be the co-author of his or her destiny lies in this Rule. Good works may multiply just as fast as problems if people so choose. Because of the "quick fix" and "miracle cures" provided by science and religion, people have forgotten that they have responsibility for their lives. Our adversaries and our friends are our creations and our mirrors. We create both through our actions and our inaction.
If life seems like a rat race where we are trapped in a behavioral experiment seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, we must rebel against the negative forces conditioning us and using us, and take responsibility proactively. Solving problems has replaced idealism as the principle human and national motivation. This is because we cannot escape the consequences of living in violation of the idealistic principles in our national declaration of mission and human rights.
The ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness ." is a mandate for idealism to govern action. Our nation is still a work-in-progress as we try to make these truths a reality. This demands that its citizens not be satisfied and complacent, nor frustrated because we are not yet perfect. It demands that we recognize our short-comings and cooperate to overcome them with creativity, enthusiasm and fairness. Throughout our history whenever we have done this, the United States was respected as the model for the future of humanity and of government.
Currently we have become so dominated by our problems that as a nation we have seen our national unity erode and respect by other peoples unravel. Problems are not solved by arguing about how to solve them. They are not solved by imposing our solutions on others. Rather they are solved by working together proactively for goals that improve everyone's life and eliminate fear. Only by revisiting our defining principles may we again work for a unifying non-partisan vision for our future. A plan based on broadly held ideals that people across the political spectrum can agree upon is now needed and will give us the will to succeed.
© 2004 Richard Sidy