Idealism Will Kill You, and Cynicism Can't Save You


This one is for all my beloved fellow smart-ass cynics. I know you have a good reason for being cynical. When you have lived long enough, and been burned, disappointed, and disrespected enough, there are a million and one reasons not to give a fuck. I know sometimes you are clean out of fucks to give, because--ME TOO. 

But there's something I have to tell you. 

It's time to give a fuck. 

Not because the world needs us right now. Not because it makes you a good person. Not because you "should."

It's time because giving a fuck makes us happy. 

Idealism Will Kill You

Perhaps this all sounds counterintuitive. Maybe you used to care a whole whole lot, and it did NOT make you happy, which is why you chill in your cozy cocoon of indifference. I understand. Giving up cynicism is hard for me, too.

I earned my cynicism fair and square. As a young idealist, I grew up inspired by my church to serve "the least, the last, and the lost." I was determined to make a difference. At the tender age of 22, I threw myself into working for the most destitute population I could find: homeless teenagers. 

I worked literally day and night, starting programs during business hours and hanging out with teens as they came in to get off the street for the night. I cooked them dinner, listened to them, and called CPS nearly every night I worked there. While my heart broke for them constantly, the most stressful part of my job was when I went back into the office and tried to advocate for them. I thought I was there to make a difference, but I was actually getting a jarring education in bureaucracy. 

Frustrated by the institutional inertia, I was determined to break through it. I did not have time for mundane things like regular sleep, eating breakfast, or exercise. Of course, my body gave out. Overwork and secondary trauma created so much stress in my body that I couldn't relax enough to urinate or open my locked jaw wide enough to eat. Sleep was out, as was digestion and having any kind of sex drive. I was prone to bursting into tears and having black-out panic attacks.

 In just two years, I completely burnt out. I had to quit my job. The worst part for me was that despite putting everything I had into the fight, I couldn't see that I made any difference whatsoever.

Cynicism Can't Save You

As I focused on recovery, I became very cynical. I stopped reading the news, I stopped being involved in things, and I tried to stop caring. I wanted to be completely different than my naive younger self. I thought that cynicism would keep me safe from all the pain idealism caused me.

It didn't work.

It pains me a little to admit this, because even now I am very fond of my cynicism. It feels liberating to say, "I don't give a F***!" I love cracking wry jokes and rolling my eyes at the world. After all the pressure I put myself under, it felt like breaking free into clear blue sky.

But if I am being honest, cynicism did not give me a reason to get up in the morning. Hiding from the world, I would binge on Netflix all night and sleep all day. Cynicism became synonymous with depression, and not having a reason to get up in the morning teetered dangerously into not having a reason to live. 

It turns out that cynicism is not the opposite of idealism at all. Cynicism is simply disappointed idealism. I was simply a despairing idealist who had realized how futile her quest was. 

My pain did not stop because I stopped caring. While idealism burnt out my body, cynicism drowned my soul. I felt hopeless and powerless. 

Idealism had said, "The world is not ideal."

Cynicism dramatically added, "And it never will be."

Coming Back to My Ideals

In the meandering course of my recovery, I tried all kinds of things. My turning point came when I tried "Creative Recovery" through The Artist's Way. I had a breakthrough when I tried the "Ideal Day" task.

As instructed, I wrote a detailed description of my ideal day within my current life. Then, I wrote a description of my "ideal-ideal" day--the best day in my wildest imagination.

Having not read ahead, I was shocked by the final step in the exercise: "Choose some aspect of your ideal day and have it. TODAY."

I was accustomed to believing that ideals were Sisyphean tasks. I had to reexamine my descriptions to see if there was anything "ideal" even possible. I noticed that although my ideal-ideal day was set in more exotic locations, the basic elements were the same in both descriptions: art, friends, being in water, good food, sweet rest. All accomplishable that day, in my normal life.

Say WHAT? Not only could I have one aspect of my ideal, I could have several?! 

I set out on my ideal day, and it. was. wonderful. I had one of the best days of my adult life.

This started turning the wheels in my mind. How could ideals, the villains who chased me to the brink, bring me so much joy?

What I began to understand was "ideal" isn't the problem; it's the "-ism." Idealism, as I had practiced it, was truly perfectionism. I had taken my lovely ideals and cast them into a do-or-die drama where I couldn't be happy until I reached them (which was never).

There is actually nothing wrong or naive about having ideals. Your ideals tell you want you want, what is worth waking up for each morning and spending your life energy on. 

What I didn't understand was that when I rejected my ideals, I had walked out on my dreams. 


Since that ideal day, I have been looking for language to describe my new point of view. I think the simplest thing to call it is acceptance.

Acceptance calmly says, "It's true. The world is not ideal, and it never will be. And that's okay."

It's okay because the same world that is full of suffering is also full of beauty and grace.

It's okay because there is still so much good that exists and so much good we could do.

It's okay because although I can't perfect the world, I still have power, choice, and responsibility.

The idealist and the cynic both believe the world is not what it should be. But the truth is, we can never fully know what the world is or could be. This truth is always inviting our acceptance.

Without predefining the world, I can actually experience it. Not being sure leads to curiosity.  And curiosity leads everywhere.

To trying things, to joy and sorrow, to learning and unlearning, to creation and destruction.

Acceptance allows me to see the world is not black and white. It is not even shades of gray. It is a multicolor splendor of every phenomenon and every possibility.

For me, acceptance looks like remembering my ideals and allowing any small aspect of them to count. It's having part of my ideal day every day. It's re-describing my experience at the teen shelter: I did make a difference. It just wasn't the one I expected to or in the time-frame I wanted. 

Every kid I listened to was a kid who was heard. Every act I did, regardless of outcome, showed them someone cared. Now that it's been several years, I begin to see the long-term effects our intervention had: I have heard that at least one of those kids ended up in college. Who knows what tragedies I helped prevent and what resiliency I helped foster. 

I finally understand the world does not need me to "make a difference." It simply invites me to accept it. It invites me to love it, flaws and sorrows and all. It invites me to dance with it, to engage with it, to help create it. It invites me simply because I am part of the world, and when I don't show up, it misses me. 

Accepting this invitation brings me out of my isolation and connects me to all that ever was, is and will be. It peaks my curiosity and gives me excitement about starting a new day. It gives me stuff to do and reasons for being. It gives me adventures to undertake. 

It makes me happy. 

The world is not ideal, and it never will be. Still, I accept it and its perpetual invitation because I love it. We belong to each other.