Reality and Ideality: an unlikely companionship

There exists a tension between Reality and Ideality. Ever uncomfortable, this tension educates our minds and our hearts, influencing just about everything from our hopes and dreams to our daily actions.

Reality and Ideality make for intriguing companions. Reality clearly states what is, whereas Ideality states what can be. When Reality says something is, Ideality objects and says, yes, but not that it can’t be something different. But Ideality often says things that not only can be, but it will be, and it will continue to be so. This is wrong, or so Reality says, and so reality checks ideality. Ideality is often miffed when it is corrected by reality, but reality grins wryly, shaking its head at the other’s head in the clouds.

But Ideality fights back, knowing that sometimes Reality thinks that because something is so, that it must always be so. Ideality reminds us that this wrong, because Reality is never fixed, but is changing. Some of the conditions of Reality are static, while other conditions are quite the opposite. But Reality is always at present, so perhaps Reality thinks itself of constant character.

Reality can speak plainly to the past and present, but it cannot speak with any confidence to the future. Along those lines, if one defines the ideal rather dispassionately, than anything that is said about Future is merely idealistic. But the realistic cannot be so for Future, because if something is so than it cannot be anything else. And since Future is a passenger unarrived to the life of any, then it is literally not Reality (yet). To us, without imagination, Future is not Reality. That is, it’s not real to us. But it is an idea that exists to us, as much as the idea of a unicorn or Bigfoot exists to us. Certainly it does exist in our mind, but not in (…wait for it…) reality. At least not today.

This isn’t to say that our visions for the delayed present can’t be real. By way of example, for eager Christians, the Second Coming is not real yet—it’s a process yet to be fully realized. But just because it isn’t reality in the sense that it is yet to come does not mean it can’t be. But the doubters are correct to say that—again, to us—the Second Coming is not real as of today, though the idea may be. We know it is real to God, but again, for us (and depending on theological bent, perhaps for God also), the Second Coming has not yet been realized. Thus when looking to that of the celestial realm, we deal with the ideal, being forced to keep this discussion on earth for now.

While interesting to those who put stock in visions of the future, surely this can’t be important to the practical, the common pragmatist. Well, for those who say that we can only act in the real, be careful: What real are we talking about? When we say, well this is just how things are and so this is just how it will be—is that realistic, or just negatively idealistic? Negatively predictive of an unarrived reality? Who’s to say that things can’t be different? We can make educated guesses, given our predictive models (both mathematical and psychological), but nobody—the positive idealist or the realist—can speak to future conditions with certainty, even with predictive data to support their claims.

On the flip side, some fantasy of a positive (or even negative) Ideality, the ideal which we may see as the future, cannot be projected upon the Reality of the past or present. Not even the Reality of the past can be projected on the Reality of the present. (One could argue our understanding of history is also just as ideal as it is real: the only people who would know otherwise would be those who lived through it). Ideality struggles to live in the present because it is just that—an ideal character. It’s an idea that has yet to be achieved, so it cannot possibly be present reality.

But this does not mean that the vision of the ideal—the future state, as some may call it—cannot be the current state at some point or another. But Ideality may be just like Reality in that it is organic, and adapts with the transition as much as Reality adapts.

Our lives are sometimes a mere struggle in that transition, a slow-moving patch of discomfort in the adaptation. We sense the tension and struggle to understand it; and yet understand it we must, lest we misunderstand what a life worth living—a life of Ideality and Reality—can offer. Our understanding of the two may deeply influence how we fulfill the measure of lives.

Take, for example, an individual in today’s economy looking for work. That person feels the great tension between the real and the ideal. Some will say, maybe even the candidate herself, that the cold, brash world operates in certain ways, and that we are to conform to those ways or else we suffer the consequences. On the flip side (and Americans really love this idea), society tells her (and she fills herself with this hope) that no matter what life brings, we can do whatever we dream if we just keep at it, or if our ideal job doesn’t exist that we can just make it up ourselves (how many videos on LinkedIn tell us this every day?). Well now what. We have two competing ideas—ideas that some are completely sold on. We have no knowledge of what the future holds. We don’t know if it’s the perception of reality or the myth of the ideal that will actually come to be, but either way we have to act, and for most of us we learn to act on both—some measure of reality, and some measure of ideality.

Problem is, our experiences will cheat us at times. We’ll hope and work for the ideal but instead get the real. Or we’ll live a life of living our real expectations only to discover the ideal could’ve worked better. Or even worse, what if our biases are confirmed? What if for years all we get is the real, so we try to quash the ideal? Or what if for years we get the ideal, wondering why others just don’t have enough vision, continuing along this idea that if one simply “wants it enough” that it will come.

As for you, are any of those wrong? Which is it, Reality or Ideality, that should steal our hearts and fill our minds?

The tension is—for lack of a better word—real, and we all feel it and are obligated to navigate it. At times we are forced to take a side—or at least feel like we have to take a side (all the while we usually may not have to). The tension is palpable in the dynamic life of individuals and society.

So what are we to do? Give up the ideal for the real? Live in the real while convincing ourselves of the ideal? The answer may be that we don’t have to forsake either. This may not be a “two masters” situation. Perhaps honest, humble Truth lies in accepting both Reality and Ideality, for what they are and what they can give us. Truth, bearing the burden of both, would celebrate the balance and rejoice in the harmony of the unlikely companionship. Truth, like normal, will leave us no masters—Truth will make us free.


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