Idealism vs Realism

Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Dante Alighieri

Give up all hope-Pema Chodron interprets a Lojong saying in the article Abandon any Hope of Fruition

Hope is about the future not about now. Idealism is about the future not about now.

Discouragement relates to idealism in that idealism is often the precursor, or the other side of the coin to discouragement.  The old thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if….?”  And then encountering all of the obstacles to that “great” situation as imagined. It’s all fabrications of the mind. Thought castles in the air. Lego towers no one can climb.

A couple of things came to mind after I wrote the post about discouragement. These are some things people do in order to ward off discouragement or use to avoid confronting reality, which are often detrimental to themselves and others. This includes myself so I’ll use some examples of my own or of those of people I know.  This is sort of random as it popped into my head. Or as the little thought factory there processed the ideas.


The kind of zealousness I am talking about here is an escapist variety. It is the one very much like religious fundamentalists use to “correct” the world and other’s behavior while totally avoiding looking at one’s own behavior. It says “If only everyone else were upright and moral and behaved as I think they should then my situation would be great.”

Sometimes I fall into this one. At it’s most extreme quite a few years back I felt that Buddhist principles should be taught in schools and that everyone needed to be protected from their own stupidity by my preachy intervention. Well I’ve almost gotten over that. (almost)

Enemies-the Other

The main issue is aggression. Often if there’s too much hope you begin to have a strong sense of enemy. Then the whole process of trying to alleviate suffering actually adds more suffering because of your aggression toward the oppressor. Pema Chodron in an interview

Having enemies makes someone feel important. It caters directly to one’s own sense of importance in the world. Only important people have enemies. It means I matter somehow if people attack me. So blowing up an oppressor into a huge monster (seen the G-20 demonstrations lately?) makes my puny fight, my David vs the Goliath all the more important.

The manufacture of enemies is quite a simple process. Blow something out of proportion and then place blame. The other will likely oblige since this is a common mind game that everyone knows the rules to however subconsciously. And voila an enemy is born and a feud initiated.

Enemies-the Self

Being one’s own worst enemy. There’s a lot of masochism that gets hyped as witty banter or a way to avoid discouragement or as outright self-loathing. This stuff usually comes out in a self-confessional mode (ahem!-blogs blogs-that was like cough cough) and invites others to jump on the bandwagon as well. This includes the “I’m a bad Buddhist” badge. A negative ideal if you will.

If one cannot conjure up some external enemies becoming a target one’s self is just about as good.  This Ophelia complex (see a great post from the old Interdependence Project blog called Hardcore Dharma is the Best Buddhist by Julia May Jonas for some more on being a “bad Buddhist” among other related things)

For example,  I met a woman once at a social event who prefaced nearly everything she said with “I’m just sooo naughty…” She thought it was cute or witty. After about the 10th time it got really irritating. And she kept at it but in an almost insistent way. I wanted to say “Well stop being so naughty then or stop thinking of yourself in those terms and you won’t have so many issues to carry on about endlessly.” But I don’t think she would have got it. And I didn’t say it. There would have been nothing I could have said that would have stopped her except to agree with her self-evaluation. And I couldn’t do that. So I walked away.

I don’t want to get into my opinion of S&M and the like here too much but this woman’s attitude was one that seemed to beg for some kind of punishment. It felt as though she was asking from me and other people there to validate her negative self-image in a destructive kind of way. (and I am just sooo not into that kind of scene)

Self-defeating behavior as a way to bolster one’s ego against disappointment and discouragement is a really complicated subject that I’ll probably come back to some time.


Oh the great burden of ennui. Is there anything that hasn’t been seen and done already? Is there no relief from the monotony of existence?

Dictionary definitions of jaded include “. tired; worn-out; wearied; dulled or satiated, as from overindulgence”

Jadedness is a good way to avoid engaging with anything meaningful in life.


If one avoids something either because it won’t live up to the ideal, and potentially leads to discouragement or because it can’t be faced on it’s own terms for whatever reason then again one is not engaging in the meaningful aspects of life.

A personal example. There was another blogger I seemed to be getting into scuffles with a while back. I decided for a while just to abandon the situation. Not for any other reason than my own discomfort with the way this person was interpreting things I said. Whether the interpretation was right or wrong was irrelevant.

So sitting with that for a while I looked at my own discomfort and realized I had to get way past that stuff and pointedly confront the situation with something a little deeper than a haughty fit or avoidance. So I searched for some empathy. And some compassion. And some courage. And I wrote something from the heart for them. They responded kindly.

When one goes for the depth within rather than avoiding it the results are sometimes surprising. But everyone has the same fears and doubts. This person is no different than me.

Avoidance is a slippery business. One that requires an active vigilance in order to break.


Sarcasm is like a subset of avoidance. It can also be funny though often in a cruel way.

I give into it from time to time though much less mindlessly than I used to. Is there such a thing as mindful sarcasm? Am still debating the point with myself.

Political Rhetoric

This category is something I can be very good at. Loudness substitutes for action and realism sometimes.  I still indulge it in the face of discouragement. But at least I usually know I’m doing it. Here’s my most recent example.

I made this comment on Tom Armstrong’s blog  Sacramento Homeless specifically this post.

This is just bloody stupid.

[quote from Tom’s article] “Ms. Long-Scott believes in stopping advancing technology because, in her view, it “replaces human beings,” takes jobs and “causes whole industries to shut down.”  She asked the audience at the Forum, rhetorically:  “Can you compete [for a job] with a computer that doesn’t need health care, doesn’t need a break!?”  “We the People should run the resources!” she exclaimed.”

She ought to come here to India and see what the bureaucracy is like without computers. Some people wait over a year to get a telephone installed by the government telephone utility. All paperwork is in duplicate and triplicate (carbon paper) with no filing system so you have to apply for things 2 or 3 times and pay bribes to get them through in a timely fashion. Sure there is a lot of work for people but there would be a lot more MEANINGFUL work if skills were taught and technology available.

I think I’ve criticized this woman before on this blog. I know a lot of communists, and a lot more former communists who, once they got their heads out of their idealistic asses and took a look at reality actually made some difference in the world.

The revolution ain’t gonna happen in that big ego swelled up way the rhetoriticians want. There ain’t gonna be any storming of the Bastille or proletariat solidarity movement. It’s easy to recite political tracts but a lot different on the ground.

It’ll happen when my cleaning lady learns to read (I am teaching her) and my American neighbor doesn’t have to worry about paying for his heart medication and every country becomes a melting pot without any clear “majority”. It’ll happen one by one until the balance shifts.

So that’s my idealism. Probably got my head into that gaseous stratosphere as much as any other “revolutionary”.

So that’s a roundup of useless techniques to avoid discouragement and advance idealism.


Hope is fairly useless. Obama and especially his followers seem to be getting that message now. But that doesn’t mean one can’t set realistic goals and work towards them. Maybe that’s what’s happening. Maybe “the big actions” are built step by step with small actions. Maybe you can’t move a mountain in a day or a year.

Maybe it takes a little longer.


3 comments on “Idealism vs Realism

  1. Yipes. I can see my sometimes-seriously flawed self in all the areas you write about, but especially so in the enemies-creation area.

    I know I do that. I can slam people mighty hard, in part because I don’t want to be mamby-pamby about it. If I’m going to believe something, I want to bite down on the bullet with a Kool-Aid chaser.

    I suppose some of it comes from the idea that I prefer that people just TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK. Don’t be gentle; spit it out. If someone is kindly, you can’t be sure they’re to be believed. If someone is course, then you feel you know they’re giving you the straight poop.

    Thus, I’m pretty much a failure in the area of right speech.

  2. Whoops. I hope I didn’t just fall with a big splash into the “worst Buddhist” trap [YOU set for me, Nella Lou! (Shakes fist.)] But I AM a terrible Buddhist, and deserving of everyone’s sympathy.

  3. Hi Tom
    I write about those situations because I am there myself. And though I don’t know if direct speech is right speech I prefer it to the alternative of putting such a shiny gloss on things that one cannot fathom the real meaning.
    And hey I don’t set traps-there are too many available already.
    Terrible Buddhists Unite may have to become the new slogan!
    Thanks for your comments.

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