The Sleep of Idealism

Author: Gary Hart

Idealism, perhaps the highest function of conscience, is asleep now.  Idealism is a soft virtue.  It is not aggressive as is eagerness for wealth, or the scramble for power, or the need to be among the influential.  Instead, idealism suggests a search for a more noble vision and a sense that we have a duty of care.

No challenges to our collective conscience are heard from high places.

Most news stories are about conflict, violence, or traumatic events.  Families on our border are shattered and living in miserable conditions.  The corporate world leaves concerns about our future climate to young people.  Our nation’s capital is shrouded in anger and hostility with little if any motivation for public service.

Money, usually hidden in the corridors of power, now openly controls virtually all our public policies.  The guardianship of our public resources has been blatantly turned over to those who seek to privatize them for private wealth.  There is a giant revolving door between the White House and the upholstered caves of the lobbyists nearby.

A survey of present social and political conditions is bound to depress.  It offers no glimmer of hope or promise.

As a recent column in the New York Times observed: when leaders systematically lie, “the danger is that we grow so weary and cynical that we withdraw from civic engagement” and fail to engage in the political process.

And yet, as glimmers of hope often unreported, acts of mercy and kindness are carried out every day.  There are private charitable agencies and warm-hearted individuals who seek to care for the broken immigrant families on our borders.

Years of effort by volunteer researchers and lawyers free inmates unjustly imprisoned after years of incarceration.  Young people with great hearts work to feed hungry children.  Unsung private groups build houses for the homeless.  Meals are delivered to shut ins.  The elderly in assisted living are treated to music by volunteer musicians.

Where does goodness come from in a world of greed and selfishness?  Much from religious convictions and training.  Much from kind parents who teach sharing and concern.  But there is much that comes from the individual human heart.  We often call this conscience.

Are we born with a conscience or must it be learned?  Why does it make us feel good when we have helped someone in need?

Cynics say we are “salving our conscience” by putting a bill in the Salvation Army bucket.  The idealist says we are responding to deeply held convictions in our very soul.

There will be no final resolution of these kinds of questions while on this earth.  But we desperately need a revival of conscience after years of neglect and selfishness.

There is a close connection between idealism and conscience.  The idealist is driven by conscience.  The idealist sees the gap between what is and what ought to be and tries to close that gap.  But the first step is to envision what ought to be.  Our conscience tells us.

Idealism is not dead.  But with notable exceptions it is sleeping.  Politicians, even idealistic ones, are reluctant to appeal to idealism for fear of seeming dreamy and out of touch with what we call reality.

Among the many presidential candidates, we still wait to hear any one of them say, “ask what you can do for your country.”  It is a challenge to idealism.  It is a challenge to our conscience.

[And to all my friends a very Happy New Year!]

6 Responses to “The Sleep of Idealism”

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    >>>>>”Politicians, even idealistic ones, are reluctant to appeal to idealism for fear of seeming dreamy and out of touch with what we call reality.”

    I’m not sure what that means. But, if it’s true, then the precious few “idealistic” politicians who fear seeming dreamy and out of touch with reality have no business calling themselves leaders of lemmings let alone of the people they purport to represent.

    And, if idealism is asleep, then it is because the overwhelming forces of cynicism have made it so … based on personal experience, you know … as an unabashed reality-based idealist. There may be no hope for my kind after next November. 🙁

  2. Joseph F Kaminski Says:

    Bravo, Senator, bravo !!


  3. Michael Says:

    A generation of American leaders that began with the selfless idealism of the New Frontier seemed to end with Reagan declaring that the homeless lived in the streets because they wanted to – not only with abject surrender, but with a spiteful enjoyment in it. I’m looking forward to the day someone picks up the torch again. Until then, those unreported glimmers of hope, mercy and kindness will light the way, perhaps leading to something greater.

    Happy New Year to all. Fasten your seatbelts. I’m afraid there will be a great deal of turbulence ahead.

  4. Martha Keys Says:

    Thanks, Gary, for an excellent column to remind us of the reality of idealism. You might have encouraged me to do more to satisfy that basic part of me to actively contribute. At 89, I’m quite healthy and active and yet don’t do enough to further my innate demand to contribute to the healthy idealism for our future. Turning a page, I will begin again. Kudos! Martha

  5. Skye Bravo Says:

    Goodness? It is found in the courage to speak the truth, no matter the consequences. This is why we have a conscience and the free will to comply with it or ignore it. Watch for a letter in your mailbox at CU.

  6. Bill Pruden Says:

    Senator, Thank you for another insightful assessment of the state of the nation. You have highlighted a critically important element of positive societal change and reminded us of its importance.  Indeed, we are a nation founded in idealism. Beginning with the dream that all men are created equal the United States has been a nation based in idealism and aspiring to achieve the ideals upon which it is founded.  And yet idealism has long been a double-edged sword. We encourage the young to be idealists–think Greta Thunberg–but at the same time, we worry that if they don’t grow out of it they will be seen as naive and impractical, unable to survive in the real world.   And yet if idealism is not the driving force behind society, what is? the answer I fear is on display daily in the White House — selfishness and self-serving power, not power aimed at serving the greater good.  It is no less evident in the singular lack of character in the Republican Congressional ranks and it is evident in candidates who fear to offer a vision or a dream.  What was Martin Luther King’s Dream, but an expression of pure idealism.  What has John Lewis, whose cancer diagnosis is a cruel blow–been but an idealist  whose actions have never wavered from the pursuit of his ideals.  I hope Senator that you are right that idealism is only asleep, but if so, it is, as Martha Keys, noted up to us to reawaken the feeling and let it power a national revival.  Thanks for the wake-up call. And best wishes for the new year. 

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