It is rare that I find time to discuss the weightier parts of life with my father. This is due in part to my growing up and away from my parents and in part to my concern that time and distance have supported the development of opposing ideas. Nonetheless, the opportunities still arise, and, because he is my father, I do try to seize them. I had just such an opportunity yesterday afternoon as we were preparing for our afternoon coffee ritual.
Without relating all of the details of our conversation, I will say that it ended in a pointed head-butt on the issue of good and evil. For my father, every person in this world faces the struggle of good vs. evil in their own lives; they are charged with making the moral decisions that lead them to good instead of evil. I, on the other hand, wanted to take it a step further. Insisting that people are too complacent, too resigned in their capacity to bring about good in the world, I suggested that everyone needs to be challenged to live goodness beyond their means. By this I mean that the physical and man-made limits imposed upon us often force our resignation; they instills within us – consciously or unconsciously – the deprecating notion that we can “only do so much.” Where we need to stretch our minds, hearts, and spirits, I feel, is recognizing that superficial evils may in fact affect a greater good. Can evil really produce good? Evil doesn’t produce anything, just as good doesn’t produce anything. But the path to good’s manifestation may include evil. We should not avoid the path simply for this reason.
Additionally, I believe we are complicit in creating our definition of “evil” to an end which fabricates dichotomies, black-and-white contrasts, extremes, etc. It is easier to accept good if it has a clear enemy; likewise with evil. But too much is shunned, abandoned, attacked, ignored, and otherwise abused because we have created an artificial conception of what is necessarily always good and necessarily always evil. Is God so one-dimensional? I think not. And, if we accept that He lives in His creation (We are made in His image, right?), then we are contradicting ourselves when we say that God is in all, but evil is strictly such-and-such and good is universally so-and-so.
At the end of our inconclusive conversation, my father looked at me with a faint smile. I had just finished a passionate tirade about the capacity of people to do more good than they think possible, and on the need to avoid spiritual stratification (that is, claiming some are chosen and others are not). I said – in a childlike, naïve way – that I wanted to help people see their potential, just as I wanted to see my own potential. The only way to do that, I insisted, is by challenging and loving each other in the midst of the worst the world had to offer.
There was a pause in the conversation. Before he turned around to leave, my father said, “Hold on to that idealism for as long as you can.” I stopped short. What does one say to that?
Since our discussion, I have been thinking about his parting advice. Don’t let go of idealism. Well, I thought, he certainly wasn’t asking me to hold onto it for my own sake. What good would idealism do for me if I was swimming in a sea of realists? And then the buttressing thought popped in: the idealism wasn’t for him either, was it? Why, after all, do people regularly tell me not to lose my idealism and then berate me for being foolishly naïve? I have two explanations.
First, those who know and love me recognize the power and necessity of good; they believe that if I can hold to ideas that embrace good at every juncture of life, regardless of the circumstances, I will always be happy, be energized, and be passionate. For my own sake, I believe they would genuinely want this.
But there is more to idealism than myself. As I understand, idealism would be a dead horse if I were the only one around. It serves to do more than make me happy; it inspires others; it energizes my own gifts in such a way that I can actively and enthusiastically share them with the world. The fact that I am happy and passionate is not a reflection of anything else but of the potential for making a positive change, and of actually making that change. Hold onto idealism? My father must have known that idealism is the key to burgeoning good in whatever form, and knowing this, saw the great potential in me to do so directly and to inspire others by my passion and action.
This is not to say that my rousing words were actions in themselves or movements toward action. They might have been inspiring, but more than anything else, they were an outpouring of unfaltering belief. In the moments when I am most excited, the people who listen know exactly what I’m saying – less because of the words and more because of the spirit behind them. They know what the passion means. And, I believe this to be true of all who speak according to their hearts.
So, then, I am to hold onto my idealism. Not that I would ever consider leaving it behind – either because it was too much trouble or because it lent me too much resistance. The purpose of idealism is to shine in a sea of dimmer lights. I don’t mean to suggest than I am the panacea for the world’s ills. Not remotely. I do mean to suggest, however, that I am passionately sure about my ability and charge to inspire people to see their own potential and to rekindle idealism where it has been snuffed out. After all, the kind of change humanity needs – indeed, all of creation – is a kind affected only by God. But that doesn’t mean sitting around and waiting for it. Idealism is the fire of God that is lived out differently in each person; but it is in all people that it must be recognized and lived. God is in creation; let God act, then, as a unified creation. I mean to say: don’t tell others to hold onto idealism. Take hold of it yourself.