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Thinking Realistically

“I write a little more than a week after the death of Martin Luther King, who lived as only the great live, in humble obedience to the highest ideals, in proud defiance of men and laws that would have required him to abide by a narrower vision and to dream a narrower dream.”

Wendell Berry: Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience

“If we are not great it does not matter what we do.”

A.N. Whitehead: The Aims of Education

“The ideal… is the only guide to the future. Men and nations [and schools, ed.] who have no idealism- no order of hopefulness-have no future, or none they can bear to think about….

But one of the most damaging results of the loss of idealism is the loss of reality. Neither the ideal nor the real is perceivable alone. The ideal is apparent and meaningful only in relation to the real, the real only in relation to the ideal. Each is the measure and the corrective of the other.”

Wendell Berry: The Loss of the Future

Nobody is more unrealistic than the man or woman who refuses to be idealistic. How can I say that? Because such a person does not matter and not mattering will lose energy and losing energy will get nothing done and getting nothing done will never be happy or fruitful and being unhappy and fruitless will be rejected by reality.

The world as it is is not as it ought to be. The idealist is the only person who knows that. Many people know that the world is not as they want it to be, but that is far from being not as it ought to be. Such a person is a narcissist, which is what realism separated from idealism boils down to.

But then, what is idealism? It is not an escape from reality. It is the willingness to wrestle with reality, to demand that it submit to intelligence and justice. It is the willingness to dream about better days, in which justice pours down like rain and waters the fields of every free person, even though you know you will never see them.

Moses was an idealist when he wrestled God into letting the children of Israel survive instead of wiping the and replacing them with Moses’ own children – and then never entered the promised land.

Joshua and Caleb were idealists when the ten realistic spies said the land was inhabited by giants and Caleb said, “If the Lord delights in us, He will give us this land.”

David was an idealist when he refused to touch the Lord’s anointed, even when that anointed was trying to kill him.

Isaiah was an idealist when he said that the lion would lie down with the lamb.

Jesus was an idealist when He said, “don’t worry about what you will wear or what you will eat, for all these things the Gentiles worry about, but seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”

St. Paul was an idealist when he said, “Forgetting what lies behind I press on for the prize of the high-calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

The idealist is not separated from reality. He simply has a reality based way of assessing reality. The idealist is the only realist.

The realist without ideals is a fraud. He doesn’t even believe the world he is living in is there apart from him. He thinks that everything should be measured by how it affects him or by how he affects it.

The realist is the ultimate fantasist, and thus the destroyer of all that matters. Because what matters and what guides us is not the way things are but the way things ought to be.

The question is, do we love our ideals enough to pay for them? If only we could remember that in our planning.

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