“Rather than adjust his expectations in the face of disappointment, he tended to bury them deeper inside himself and regard the disjunction between his ideals and the worldly imperfections as the world’s problems rather than his own.” – Joseph J. Ellis (speaking of Thomas Jefferson)
One of my former bosses pointed out to me once that I was an idealist…..and he said that I would forever struggle with this and be let down by people as a result. At first I thought he was being critical, though he was also a friend, brilliant, intuitive and not prone to unkind criticism, so I had to sort through his words for a while and consider whether they may be true. After much thought, I realized he was right on the money. Pointing it out to me made me add that to the definition of who I know I am, and now makes me examine life and situations where I get disappointed or discouraged with people by asking myself “Was I expecting the ideal and not the human?”
What is an idealist? I would describe it as having the expectation that our world operates in a way where all people do the right thing, or at least that is always their goal. We idealists view the world as how it should be, instead of what it really is. We forget the idea that people are human and by nature don’t always choose to do the right thing. We also forget that people are dealing with many things in their lives, and sometimes we aren’t their priority. But when people come up short of our expectations, they disappoint us and break our hearts. Over and over again.
Idealists are optimists by nature, but if not fully cognizant of their unrealistic expectations, quickly become cynics. It’s difficult when people let us down to not take it personally…..it all seems very personal, and very intentional. But in my life as I have started examining this sort of thing, I have realized it seldom really is. We humans just aren’t good at perfection. We have bad memories so we forget about people when they are not in sight and also often don’t see the person right in our path. We are often not thoughtful, often because we are thinking of ourselves. Other times we have good intentions, but we fail to deliver. We over-commit, over-extend and don’t allow enough time for the things we have to do. We don’t consider the needs of those around us. We let ourselves and other people down constantly, and while we may apologize on occasion, prefer to overlook it and go on. It’s much easier that way. Plus time flies….and we have other things we need to do.
My great vulnerability in life is when people disappoint me. I always get over it eventually, but not usually before a period of deep hurt and probably a little bit of mourning. Almost every time in my life when I feel overly emotional, almost every time I cry, it is because someone has disappointed me. Someone says something that hurts my feelings, it appears they don’t notice I am there or if they do notice they don’t think my presence is significant. They don’t seem to care about who I really am, they don’t trust me, or just under-value me.
But really, most of it probably isn’t personal. Sometimes we perhaps need to avoid people who do this, and choose to surround ourselves with other people who are capable of more. But other times we need to learn to love them more and better and be gracious and graceful.
I think perhaps we all are born idealists. Perhaps it is the very essence of faith….God’s plan was for perfection, then sin came into the world, and now we are born as sinners who struggle with what should be and what is every day of our life. I think most people tend to get over idealism by covering themselves with a layer of cynicism and/or learning not to expect much out of other people. There are days when I wish I could do that. I know it would make my life easier, and happier. But I think that is an impossibility for me.
Most days I appreciate my idealist leanings. I want to live in a world when people strive to do the right thing. I want people to care about doing things well, and noticing the impact their decisions have on other people. I want to see consistency, responsibility, commitments that mean something and promises not broken. I want kindness to rule, and everyone to feel they are noticed and appreciated. And I want to spend my life encouraging such things, which means I need to notice when they do and don’t happen. I don’t have the luxury of falling into apathy.
I need to cope in the world, keep a firm check on reality, and fight the cynicism that can easily overtake us idealists. I want to learn to be more gracious and merciful, so I can live in reality. I want to think of others more than myself and get over feeling that it is all about me. I want to grade on a curve. I want to analyze each situation, accept my responsibility for my own inadequacies, and be kind as I assess the inadequacies of others.
I hate when I have to deal with my idealistic nature, but I can’t run away from it. I have to keep asking the question “Was I expecting the ideal and not the human?” and toss out those negative things that consume my emotions. There are more important things in life to deal with. I am an idealist, but I shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t meet my ideals. My former boss saved me a lot of time when he passed on that nugget. Not that I don’t still get my heart broken….but the healing time is much shorter when things are in perspective.