Motörhead’s founder and front man Lemmy Kilmister, who recently passed away, was once quoted as saying: “People just rip each other to shreds over the years. Nothing kills a relationship like commitment.”
Kilmister’s anti-idealism quote is certainly not surprising coming from a rock star, and its unapologetic pessimism gives it a culturally appealing modern flavor. It begins by being grounded in the kind of day-to-day life many experience: dysfunctional marriages and relationships that have no spiritual framework and are often filled with verbal and emotional abuse. Then, in a profoundly cynical and clever twist of words, “commitment” is presented as the problem that tears people apart rather than the glue that is meant to keep people together.
We Want to Talk Exceptions, Not Rules
In an interview back in 2008, former Gov. Mike Huckabee made an appearance on comedian Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” to talk about his book “Do the Right Thing.” The book delved into the premise that if more people acted how they ought to, our country would have less crime, less need for taxes, less need for a Big Government nanny state, etc.
In other words, our society would simply have fewer problems. One would think that there would not be a lot of disagreement on this concept—it’s fairly easy to understand. Unfortunately, Stewart (and modern society) have a problem with this idea. “This land you speak of, do the unicorns talk in this place?” Stewart asked Huckabee sarcastically.
These are just a few examples of how modern society often reacts whenever the topic of living toward a moral ideal comes up. “You’re not living in the real world,” they will say. “You’re being too idealistic. That’s not how the world is. Not every family has a mom and a dad to take care of a child. Some people steal and kill. Others lie and cheat. Don’t talk about how people should be because that’s not how it is.” It sounds logical, indeed realistic. But it’s missing the point entirely.
Realism Is an Excuse to Be Lazy
In our rush to appear well-grounded, rational, and “tolerant,” we seem to have lost our sense of ideals. Right now, for instance, any talk in the public forum about how a child deserves the essential nurturing that both a mother and a father provide in their own unique way is seen as “insensitive” to single parents and “gay-bashing” to those who identify as homosexual, despite the obvious truth of the ideal.
At the root of this phenomenon is a kind of entrenched hopelessness that masquerades as a good thing, passed off as “world-weariness” or “realism.” In the midst of our clamor to “get with the times,” an occasional reminder of how we should ideally live is seen as pesky and annoying, something that we inherently know deep down to be true, but also know how difficult it is to implement. There’s comfort in hiding behind realism—it can seem to excuse us from the hard work of growing in virtue. Saying it isn’t “realistic” to expect people to act how they ought is a defensive reaction that implicitly excuses our own failure to live toward ideals.
We often fail to realize how dangerous this attitude is. Whether we admit it or not, we are unwittingly conditioning ourselves to settle for less than we are capable of. To state that it is “unrealistic” for everyone to treat each other kindly and not “rip each other to shreds” is to indirectly say that there is no hope for the world (so don’t spend too much energy trying to be better).
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
To cry “unrealistic” is to mistakenly think that one must be successful in every attempt at living toward an ideal. We know that perfectly achieving an ideal is impossible on this earth—the point is in trying to reach the ideal knowing that, however far we fall short, it is better to strive for what’s best than surrender to moral and social erosion.
It’s in the journey toward the ideal that we improve ourselves and those around us. That’s the whole point of having ideals in the first place—not to build “heaven on earth,” but to ennoble society and inform our personal lives with much greater dignity and fulfillment through the cultivation of virtue.
Despite what rock stars say, doing the hard work of sustaining a committed relationship is actually a great indicator of happiness. So, at the risk of being called “naïve” (or worse), I say that it’s perfectly okay, indeed vital, to be idealistic. To be anything less would be to not only sell ourselves short, but the world as well.