The Tyranny of the Ideal

Dave Baggett

[Note from the Editor: Dave is one of the great young philosophers around the country who keeps a personal journal of thoughts about life, following in the footsteps of such past greats as Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. He has offered to share with us all the following recent entry, which can spark helpful insights for all of us.]

Sometimes I wonder if I?ve let philosophy mess me up a bit psychologically. Part of emotional health is learning contentment, accepting the way things are. But because of my philosophical bent, I know that I tend to be preoccupied not with questions of how things are, but rather how things ought to be.

I remember listening to a lecture years ago and feeling a sense of discontent the whole time. It was only afterwards that I realized what was bothering me was that the whole analysis, historical as it was, rightly focused on what had in fact happened, leaving aside questions of how things should have gone instead. History is largely concerned with the former; philosophy indulges questions about the latter.

Similarly with psychology; a psychologist may work hard to identify why people do what they do. A philosopher is also concerned with what people ought to do. Like anybody else, I can analyze the way life goes, but I?ve an irrepressible inclination to explore how it ought to go instead. This can lend itself to quite a number of unsettling and painful recognitions that life isn?t how it ought to be. Or my life isn?t what it ought to be, or could be, or might have been. On occasion, I?ve gone so far as to imagine that I?m stuck in the wrong possible world or modal reality, and that in some other world life is as it ought to be. It just isn?t here. I?ve obviously watched too many science fiction films!

This is fine and interesting philosophically, but it's potentially devastating emotionally. It detracts from contentment and happiness. It fills one with a constant sense that things aren?t right. It easily leads to unfavorable comparisons of the way my life actually is with what I envision it could be or what it ideally would be.

I remember an interesting experience that, when it happened, totally surprised me. I?d graduated with my doctorate and was fortunate to be offered a full-time, tenure track position teaching philosophy. I was blessed indeed, as it was a tight job market. I ended up at a neat little college and had every reason to be happy and excited, and I was. But a few weeks after getting there, I found myself one evening standing outside the building where I taught most of my classes and where my office was located. And it was a sharp enough building to look at. I stood there taking stock of all that had happened over the previous months, culminating in my standing there. And in that moment of reflection, I anticipated feeling wonderful, consumed with a powerful recognition of how fortunate and blessed I?d been to find myself there.

Instead, however, tears welled up in my eyes and I felt a nagging sadness. I wasn?t ungrateful, or if I was, I?m convinced it wasn?t mainly this that I was feeling. No, it was something else, and it took time to figure out what it was.

Here it is: For a long time, all through graduate school, I?d dream of the future. I?d anxiously anticipate the day when the degree would be conferred and, if I was fortunate enough, I?d take a position at a school I could call my own. I would finally begin to start my life and embark on my career. And through all that time of dreaming of the future, it was all one big open question mark. The sky was the limit. I was willing and able to travel just about anywhere for a good position. Who knew what it would be like? It could be anything at all: from a campus carved with Colonial architecture, to a school nestled in lovely hills, to a gorgeous university half way across the country. The dreams were abstract and altogether open-ended.

In contrast, standing in front of the actual building where I?d now begun to teach, there was nothing abstract or apparently open about it. It was the concrete reality. It was my future, I suddenly realized. Days of expecting more?days of expecting: Who knows what??were over. The concrete had replaced the abstract, and suddenly the future wasn?t open-ended anymore. It was all sealed in and clearly defined. And it filled me with a kind of regret, a strange and unexpected longing for more.

The abstract, however, simply has to die if we?re ever going to experience reality as it is rather than the forever inaccessible ideal and elusive future that - who knows??could be, that seems to exist just out of reach. Perhaps our reach must exceed our grasp, but we also have to learn contentment with what we have, or we?re relegated to gnawing and incessant dissatisfaction even with the real blessings of our lives.

I imagine that every married person and parent faces such moments as I faced with my job: coming to terms with the reality of the situation. Nobody marries the perfect person, or trains up ideal children. Unless we learn contentment with what is real and eschew the tyranny of the ideal, contentment is impossible to achieve.

It?s easy to idealize the abstract. We can shape that open-ended future into whatever our hearts desire. Reality is more stubborn. A real person, a real job, a real mate or child has imperfections and idiosyncrasies and that ineliminable otherness that refuses to conform to our every wish.

There?s nothing wrong with admitting there are aspects of life that disappoint. There?s nothing wrong with recognizing the way things ought to go as distinct from the way they do. And there?s nothing wrong with the impulse within for something like perfection. In fact, there?s a lot right about all of these things. But as always, just because something is right doesn?t preclude its getting twisted into something hideous. When we let our yearning for perfection, or the ideal, rob us of our joy and ability to find contentment in what?s here and now real?at least when what?s real is indeed worthy of our love and appreciation?we?re not being wise or philosophical. We?re being fools, having abdicated most all the joy of which we?re capable in this life.

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