Idealism Or Realism, Or Both?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin

Several years ago in another diocese, as one of the seminarians was being evaluated, he was criticized by a veteran priest who said that he was “too idealistic.” When told of the concern, the seminarian shot back: “I’m twenty-one years old and studying for the priesthood. If I’m not idealistic now, when will I be?”

Point well taken.

It seems that idealism is a blessing of the young, and the failure to meet those ideals a curse of the old. The tension between starry-eyed idealism and hardcore realism is an ever-present reality in the world. For example, I’d like to have a perfect Leave-it-to-Beaver family, but in fact my family is pretty dysfunctional. I wish every priest were a combination of Fulton Sheen and John Vianney, but my pastor is just a nice old guy trying to pay the bills. I long for peace in the world, but I’m feuding with my neighbor across the street.

The collision between idealism and realism colors my personal aspirations too. I’d have loved to have been a professional golfer but now must be content with an occasional win on a mini-golf course. Would I like to read the complete works of William Shakespeare? Of course. But in fact I spend most of my time reading newspapers and religious magazines. Would it be good for me to walk 10,000 steps a day? You bet! But it’s more likely that I’ll walk that far in a week, not a day.

And what about the spiritual life? I sincerely want to grow in holiness and to be more like Jesus, and I try really hard, but in fact my life is marred by imperfections, faults and sins. When I go to confession I repeat the same sins over and over again. It’s very discouraging.

The battle between idealism and realism can be exhausting, deflating. “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist,” George Carlin observed.

In our search to grow in the imitation of Christ it’s important not to let the fire of our ideals be doused by the cold water of reality. When we’re tempted to get discouraged, we should simply say with St. Paul: “I will boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell within me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12: 9-10)

Something to think about: Are you an idealist or a realist?