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Idealist or Realist—Which One are You?

Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist. – George Carlin


Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths? – Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth.


All skepticism is a kind of idealism. – Soren Kierkegaard


Man is born a predestined idealist, for he is born to act. To act is to affirm the worth of an end, and to persist in affirming the worth of an end is to make an ideal. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.


Do you think of yourself as an idealist or a realist; a dreamer or a skeptic?


Before you answer, let’s look at the dictionary definitions first, just to clarify both terms:


re·al·ist  n. 1. One who tends to view or represent things as they really are, one who faces facts and acts in a practical way

i·de·al·ist  n. 1. One who cherishes or pursues high or noble principles, purposes and goals; a visionary


Many people probably see themselves as a combination of the two—but I’ll try to convince you, in the course of these essays, that you should begin thinking of yourself as a true idealist.


I know—that’s a big lift. In the modern age, numerous polls have shown that a majority of people tend to describe themselves primarily as realists. This pragmatic, prevailing point of view, seen as a hard-headed acceptance of things as they are rather than dreamer’s view of things as they could potentially be, fits our contemporary materialistic outlook. We tend to believe in what we can perceive with our five senses, trust the “reality” of the physical world, and distrust the existence of anything we can’t immediately grasp. When someone says “I’m a realist,” we view them as analytical, tough and smart. When someone says “I’m an idealist,” we often view them as naïve and inexperienced, somebody with their head in the clouds.


Have you noticed, though? This viewpoint often changes with age.


Young people—children, adolescents and young adults—usually have idealistic tendencies. They typically carry ideals, principles, values and goals in their hearts and minds that aspire to something greater and loftier than what exists today in the “real” world. We know that historically, the world changes because the idealistic newer generations see a new potential reality and act to bring it about; while the realistic older generations may resist that change.


Realists may not hold cynical or negative points of view, but they do sometimes view things through less than hopeful eyes. Realists tend toward the rational, weighing their options before taking any action. Realists try to make safe, prudent, practical choices. Realists focus on the present and the immediate future, carefully expecting that things will inevitably go wrong at some point. Realists, for the most part, tend toward pessimism.


Idealists, though, tend toward optimism. Idealists take risks. Idealists believe that they can realize their dreams and noble ambitions, with enough grit and gumption and energy. The world’s idealists—mostly but not entirely young—tend to be positive thinkers and doers. Idealists focus on the long-term and more distant future.


Which one are you? How big are your dreams?


The Baha’i teachings urge all of us to become “divine” idealists—by using the “virtues, powers and ideal faculties” that distinguish us from everything else in nature. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith and the authorized interpreter of the Baha’i writings, wrote:


Man possesses conscious intelligence and reflection; nature is minus. This is an established fundamental among philosophers. Man is endowed with volition and memory; nature has neither. Man can seek out the mysteries latent in nature whereas nature is not conscious of her own hidden phenomena. Man is progressive; nature is stationary, without the power of progression or retrogression. Man is endowed with ideal virtues, for example intellection, volition, — among them faith, confession and acknowledgment of God, while nature is devoid of all these. The ideal faculties of man, including the capacity of scientific acquisition are beyond nature’s ken. These are powers whereby man is differentiated and distinguished from all other forms of life. This is the bestowal of divine idealism, the crown adorning human heads. Notwithstanding the gift of this supernatural power, it is most amazing that materialists still consider themselves within the bounds and captivity of nature. The truth is that God has endowed man with virtues, powers and ideal faculties of which nature is entirely bereft and by which man is elevated, distinguished and superior. We must thank God for these bestowals.


This “divine idealism,” Abdu’l-Baha says, is a “crown adorning human heads,” “supernatural power” that elevates human beings above all other forms of life. Blessed with consciousness, endowed with the ability to see beyond the merely physical, and uniquely self-aware, we humans have the remarkable option of optimism or pessimism, of realism or idealism. The mere possession of such an option tells us that we have the opportunity to choose between hope and cynicism.


Let’s look, in the next essay in this series, at the philosophical basis behind that important choice.

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