By Jim Selman | Bio
Have you ever wondered where the line is between being idealistic versus realistic? I don’t think there is an objective answer. It is one of those questions that each of us must answer for ourselves. The ‘idealistic’ versus ‘realistic’ divide is not the same as ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’. Optimism and pessimism have to do with how we relate to the future and which crystal ball we’re looking into at the time. Whether the glass is half full or half empty can make for interesting conversation at Starbucks, but at the end of the day doesn’t make any difference. Reality doesn’t care what we think.
Being idealistic or realistic has less to do with how we see the future than it does with who we are. It is a choice of how we choose to relate to the world. I am an idealist. That is, I prefer to see the best in people and am committed to winning games worth playing. I see little benefit in arguing against possibility (which is what I generally hear when told I am not being “realistic”). Possibilities are never realistic. If they were, they would be examples. Further, realists view the world as fixed and are focused on understanding causes and effects, but this view will always have the future be an extension of the past. On the other hand, idealists believe that “Where there is a will, there is a way” and see the world as a mostly blank canvas on which we can paint our dreams.
I got to thinking about this because even the most idealistic idealist must, from time to time, come up against situations that seem hopeless or where they recognize the need to sell out their ideals in the interest of practical outcomes and short-term results. For example, a pacifist may kill in self-defense, leaders in a democracy may pass laws that limit freedoms in the name of national security, and a master coach may resort to threats and manipulation to enable someone to achieve a breakthrough. Likewise, the most realistic realist will encounter moments when “we can’t get there from here”. Taking large and unreasonable risks may then seem to be the only option to living in a story of predictable and unacceptably ‘realistic’ outcomes. For example, in the film Apollo 13, Ed Harris challenges the assembled engineers to create a solution to the life-threatening dilemma of the astronauts “in spite of reality”.
It seems to me that life is a continuous series of circumstances designed to allow us to keep making the choice of where the line between idealism and realism is for us. If I were a politician, I am sure I would be more ‘realistic’ even if I had the same ideals that I have today. Likewise, if I were an academic, I might very well find myself speaking for my ideals even when a situation called for expediency and practical resolution. Wherever the line is, it is likely to move depending upon the context. At the end of the day, people with ideals can set them aside from time to time, just as the most practical of us can engage in impractical ‘what if’ conversations. An even bigger question is what is ‘reality’ when we can slice and dice our news to fit our beliefs?
When an ‘idealist’ defends their view ‘no matter what’, they are no longer choosing. Their ideals have become an ideology, transforming followers into ‘true believers’. This can eventually lead to the development of institutions and practices that, by turning a possibility into a point of view, can destroy the ideals for which they stand. On the other hand, when realists become trapped in their version of ‘reality’, then practical solutions become ‘the right answers’ and practitioners become righteous defenders of the status quo. In either case, pundits circle like hungry vultures looking for hypocritical carrion to feed the hungry spectators in the stands—none of which have any commitment beyond their point of view.
Whether we are an idealist or a realist is less important than our commitment in the moment and our willingness to own and be responsible for our choices. There is no hypocrisy in making exceptions to one’s ideals, nor in setting aside practical considerations, as long as we are true to ourselves and are choosing where we draw the line.