On Idealism

The following is from an old email message I recently unearthed (circa 1998) in which I reply to a friend who had inquired about the apparent lack of idealism among the people of “Generation X.” I’ve been thinking a lot about old people lately, so finding this seems rather timely. Unfortunately, I can’t decide whether or not I was on to something back then, or if I am proverbially and perpetually full of crap.

You decide.

The young idealist is too naïve to know that his good ideas will never work. As he gets older and observes more, and experiences (read: fails) more, he comes to realize that nothing is ever as easy as his idealism implies, unless, like Stalin, you have an army standing behind it.

In the end, there is no such thing as an old idealist, at least not a sane one. Aging leads to cynicism, a natural and healthy progression. This is why I lament the so-called “Gen-X” generation, as they have never known the light and fluffy airs of idealism. Having been cynical and ironic from the beginning — even before they were old enough to truly appreciate the meaty gnarl of well-placed cynicism — where can they go from there?

My Gen-X test subjects, most of whom are now around 30, ought to be falling into disillusionment by now, but that is impossible since — due to their lack of idealism — they never had illusions. Instead, they are “maturing” in their tastes and opinions, but are bound to be angst-ridden for it. They do not follow the traditional path from idealism to disillusionment to cynicism to maturity (the latter I define as a true acceptance of difference and diversity, as opposed to the youthful and immature view of diversity in which diversity = “alternative” as the only “good” or “truth”). Instead they pass from immature cynicism to an angst-ridden “me” state in which they feel guilty for growing up and being successful and comfortable.

Incidentally, if aging leads to cynicism, then the achievement of old age means the achievement of perfection — at least for those other than Gen-Xers (the book is still open on them). Upon reaching old age, the former idealist-turned-disillusionist-turned-cynic reaches a state of Nirvana in which he or she is comfortable in knowing that all people under 70 are wrong in everything they believe — but if they live long enough they’ll figure it out. Figured out = “Who gives a shit? All you have is your own little life, so you might as well relax and enjoy it and be nice to people no matter who they are. You’re too damn old now to make a difference anyway, and my, what a liberating feeling that is!”

8 thoughts on “On Idealism

  1. Hm, very interesting. Being a person who never at any one point in my twenties wanted to “save the world”, I thought I was in much more of a minority than your post lets on. I am a optimistic person by nature, and not in the least cynical. I feel I already am making little differences in things I do, but I never was one for Causes, nor did the injustices of the world anger me overly much as it did so many of my friends. I have ideals, but I am not so idealistic, so there was never any let-down period where I “realized” what humanity “really was”.

  2. I find that excessive cynicism is the most deplorable of psychological cop-outs. I hope I never become an utter cynic. My belief is that in well-adjusted, mature folk ( I have yet to meet any :P), cynicism and idealism are not applied in a simplistic, blanket way, but rather selective idealism for some things and a healthy cynicism for others. I am happy to find myself at that point; choosing when to put on rose-tinted glasses and when, instead to look into a microscope.

    Also, in regards to adapting our world views as we age, I think there is an analogy with love. For example, how we define an “ideal” changes drastically – we don’t expect the ridiculous perfection in a lover at 30 as we do at 19. But, does that mean the love of our life is somehow less than ideal because they are imperfect? In others words, in someone who’s idealism “ages gracefully” the idea of rigid, pedestal-worthy perfection (which is the cornerstone of idealism in the philosophical sense) shifts slightly to become: “imperfect. but perfectly imperfect for me”.

  3. “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”
    George Bernard Shaw

    I’m a Gen-Xer and still a cynic but I call it single-point meditative perception ;) aka Calling shit as I see it. No BS. I don’t tolerate BS from ppl and I point it out immediately when I perceive it.

    Great writing as usual Ed

  4. I hesitated before publishing this screed because I wasn’t even sure what it was trying to say. When I wrote it almost ten years ago, I had grow weary of all the Gen-X ironic hipsters I saw all around me. Certainly not all Gen-Xers were that way, but it seemed like I was surrounded by a disproportionate number of them, and it certainly coloured my perception.

    However, the part that I keep going back to is the part about old people. There’s something very refreshing about old folks who have gone through the various emotional phases of life and who have emerged unscathed and clear-eyed. These folks often don’t say much, or they may come off as being dispassionate in their views, but I think in many cases it’s because they’ve seen and lived all the passions, and have acquired the wisdom to understand how transient they can be.

    Hmmm… maybe I should think this through some more. I got me a blog post brewin’

  5. As a tail-end Xer (1971) I’ll admit to not having been idealistic in my youth, probably because of the time I came of age, in a more mediacentric environment. I feel more personally empowered to go out and seek my own solutions, explore my own path.

    To some extent I share a kind of punk-rock distrust of the hippie-capitalist generation before ours — as so many observers note, the transformation from hippie to yuppie wasn’t really a selling out at all, as the flower power generation were pretty entrepreneurial from the get-go (if the whole thing wasn’t really just markets in action, anyway!)…was it really rebellion, or just an expression that the market wasn’t meeting their needs and tastes?

    As an adult I feel more activist and connected than ever before, and that’s largely due to the Internet. It’s much easier to, quite literally MeetUp with people that share the same outlook, worldview and concerns now. With the emergence of so many online tools to share information and get organized, it seems like there’s more of a focus on rational, “collective action solutions” — not as sexy as being a Black Panther or a Merry Prankster, I suppose, but probably much more effective.

  6. Well Blork all in all I would say you have matured quite well and seem to be a very well-rounded fellow even as a former X-er. You certainly make more sense now. I hope a nice foodie post is on the way hee hee! And a lovely pic would do nicely. Really enjoy the blog and all the photos too.

  7. Well, we old timers did feel that our idealism had a role in stopping the Vietnam atrocity. We were numbed by our failed efforts in Central American activism, but I noticed yesterday that it was (discouragingly) once again mostly old timers withstanding freezing temperatures at our local protest against the Iraq atrocity. Are Gen X’rs so self absorbed by their “little lives” that only a relatively few will step up? Who wins and who loses under this scenario?

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