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When Idealism Fails

August 24, 2012

The fresh-faced Anabaptist young man couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. He walked into the store shortly after I did. His eyes were a deep brown, undimmed by a childhood wasted in front of the television and video games. His face had the blush of outside work, a healthy tone rather than one made pasty by too much time indoors. He had the stubble of a beard growing that told me he had either just joined the Church or was recently married – I can never tell which a new beard signifies.

After I was done with the clerk, he came up to the desk. As I left the store, I heard him say plainly:

“I’d like to buy an iPhone.”

I was disappointed. Here was a young man in the prime of life, raised in a culture that is full of the ideals of community, faith, natural health, plain living, and detachment from the world. And though his religion probably frowned on it, he was going to get an iPhone.

Idealism does that. It fails. You get a grandiose idea in your head and you think it’s the best thing ever. Then you share it with a realist. Or worse yet, you have a brush with reality.

George Fox was the first Quaker. Against the tide of a ridiculously stuffy Church of England, he pushed back with an ideal: “That of God in every man.” Fox’s notion was that everyone has an Inward Light, a spark of God in them, and that all people have worth. King and peasant, duke and tradesman, all are equal in the sight of God.

To demonstrate the power of this ideal, Fox became an iconoclast. He abandoned all ritual and ceremony, titles and class. He held meetings attended by thousands. They weren’t attracted by his preaching because many of those meetings were conducted in silent anticipation of God at work. And when he did preach, his message was simple and straightforward. They were attracted to his person, his ideals, and what they stood for, not his preaching.

And then he died. Within decades of Fox’s death, there were Quaker splinter groups. Sure there was “that of God in every man,” but the reality was that it’s not in that group they disagreed with over there…

Idealism failed again.

St. Francis, of whom I count myself a devotee, was a failed idealist. Living in simplicity and poverty, he and his early followers had an ideal: to rebuild the Church, in fact, to be the disciples God intended the first Christians to be. They gave everything away and owned nothing. It is written that Francis himself refused to even touch money. They sought to care for the poor. More than simply ‘serving’ the poor, he and his Friars Minor became poor. Though he had been asked to prescribe a ‘rule’ for living this way, Francis’ ideal was that everyone could find Christ and follow him by surrending everything, whatever attachment to this life you have, and simply take off your shoes to walk in joy and praise to God.

Francis died, too. Sadly, and cruelly, Francis’ ideals were compromised by “reality” before his death. Usurpers took Francis’ way of life and turned it into rules before his very eyes.  They left Francis’ Lady Poverty out in the cold, and instead of rebuilding the Church, they became landowners and prosperous.

The list of failed idealism could be hundreds of pages long. My point in writing this isn’t to create such a list. My point in writing this is to come to grips with what to do when idealism fails.

Does failed idealism mean that there should be no more ideals? I hope not. Ideals are the stuff of optimism. They are the dreams that inventors have that bring about improvements in life. They are the things we subscribe to that make us want to be better people.

Some ideals should fail. The Nazis had an ideal: a master race (them). Lenin had an ideal: all things in common (and death if you didn’t want to share). And so forth.

Note my wording carefully: “When idealism fails.” Idealism fails time after time, almost every day. But good ideals don’t die.

A pastor friend of mine will be 100 years old next month. In his pastorates, all very successful, he has subscribed to this ideal: that the Church should be like a school, and that it’s mission isn’t so much to teach people the Bible as it is to teach people how to live. How to follow Jesus Christ. How to prepare for death (which, he states, isn’t death at all, but preparation for eternal life).

You might think that at 100 years old, having spent the better part of 80 years serving his Church, that he might have given up on this ideal. Some of the Churches he once served are closed. The denomination he served is dying. He himself has had physical ailments that have slowed him down: his health is failing.

But just the other day he was in my office. He had outlined a way for this ideal of teaching people how to live, to follow Christ, and prepare for eternal life, how this ideal might be implemented at Timbercrest (where I work and he lives).

Idealism may fail but it doesn’t die because people who are idealists are people who see new opportunities with every sunrise. They spend their day waving at people who don’t wave back at them. And they go back to bed to dream about all the possibilities that lie before them when the sun rises again.

What to do when idealism fails? Those who can’t handle it turn to pessimism or, worse, depression. Societies built on idealism that fails are ruined. After Hitler killed himself, thousands of Germans killed themselves rather than see the death of the Nazi ideal.

Without a fresh wind of a new idealism brought by the Allies, an idealism that would both satisfy the basic needs of the people and then supercede the old, fallen ideal, Germany might still be a place of despair and failure. We know it is not today.

Some idealism fails for want of a future. Remember, the Wright brothers built bicycles before they flew at Kitty Hawk. The future was in the air and Orville and Wilbur had the ideals to make it there.

Some idealism fails because it is more fantasy than idealism. There was this time I wanted to open The Covered Bridge Root Beer Brewery in Roann. I didn’t want to mix soda water with syrup: I wanted to make the syrup from scratch, brew it the old fashioned way, and put Roann on the map with a non-alcoholic microbrewery of its own. However, I know little about running a business, I know nothing about making root beer from scratch, and I don’t know what the market is at all (or if any) for microbrewed root beer. I had a fantasy, not an ideal.

My conclusion is that when idealism fails, all you have to do is wait for the next sunrise. The idealist will be at it again.

There is a young man in Michigan who has an ideal: to help poor people in Uganda, some of the poorest of the poor. To help them, he spent an entire year without shoes. Barefoot living is an ideal to which I subscribe strongly, so my interest was piqued. Sure enough, he raised a lot of money and is going to be able to help a lot of people in Uganda.

But he’s back to wearing shoes now. At first I was disappointed. “How could you go back to wearing shoes after being free of them for a year?” I thought. But it turns out, I was the one who was misguided. The “going barefoot for a year” wasn’t the ideal: the helping the poor was (and is) the ideal. Whether or not this guy ever wears shoes again is immaterial: whether or not he keeps to the ideal of helping those in need is vital.

What’s your ideal? How have you helped implement it today? There is someone out there waiting to see what you can do to make this world a better place.

It might be me, waiting to hear what you say to the clerk in the store. 🙂


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  1. Really good, Brian, and very thought-provoking… kudos!

  2. Brian,

    I must politely disagree with you. You should not be saying that their idealism has failed. Has Jesus Christ’s idealism also failed (because we have the established church, greedy bishops and the Inquisition)?

    They have not failed, they have created certain milestones in the human history, they are like torches or lighthouses for the humanity, and the world before and after St. Francis (or Charles Fourier or Mahatma Gandhi or others) is not the same. It’s not a failure, it’s the creation of new horizons and new models to follow.

    • Hi Victor –
      I think you may have missed what I intended: idealism fails, but it always bounces back. Idealism may fail, but it’s always fresh with the next sunrise.

      I’m glad you read my posts, by the way 🙂 Thanks!


  3. Brian,

    I did not miss your point. I just disagree that idealism fails 🙂 It does not fail, it works as intended (as a torch for mankind).

    St. Francis’ or Gandhi’s idealism is like an ideal gas or a black body: it does not exist in nature in its pure form, but it serves as a model.

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