It is amazing to me how disconnected or distorting our ideals can be in relation to real life. Marx had an ideal about freedom; then Stalin followed that ideal into perversion, killing millions of people. Tolstoy focused his fiction on Christian ideals of fairness, but he was violent with his wife. D.H. Lawrence wrote about ideal masculine sexuality, but he didn't like actually having sex.
These days, I'm working as a therapist at a hospital for patients suffering from severe psychiatric problems, the majority of whom have come here after serving jail sentences. One 30-year-old man on our ward (I'm changing some details to protect his privacy) has a history of sexual assault. At times seems pretty sane. He finished high school and speaks eloquently. But his sanity is tortured by violence and hallucination. One reason he's at our hospital is that, a few years ago, he raped a stranger in a parking lot.
The other day, I saw him in the T.V. room where he was watching an Oprah special about healthy living. I made conversation with him by asking if he liked to read: "What's your favorite book?"
He answered without having to blink or think about it: "Everything by Jane Austen." Surprised, I asked why. "Because of the way people love each other," he said. "Because of the romance."
The difference between his behaviors and the story he told about what he wanted was interesting, though not surprising. A lot of us identify our ideals--and even say we're living in accord with them--while our life story is a different story. At worst, our lives are inverted nightmares of our ideals. More often, ideals sit alongside what we do with minimal influence--like lullabies, soothing, but not shaping, our daily routines.
I wonder how often the books we read hold this detached relationship from what we really do every day. We can read about some Tibetan monk, for instance, who has the self-control to sit calmly through starvation or war. We might promise ourselves to insert some of that patience into our lives. But by 5:00, in a hot parking lot, we find ourselves cursing a driver who cut us off. Maybe this is because books are entertainment more than they're practical homework assignments. Life is an entrenched habit. Entertainment provides a brilliant alternative. But it would take a lot of work to step out of habit and personality to incorporate some shiny new ideal into life.
Of course there are other reasons why we can speak about ideals without living them. One reason is that ideals live in words, and words are liars. "I value kindness," I might say. But "kindness" is a limp or watered-down word which sounds good but gets more complex when I try to apply it to nuanced situations. Was the jerk who cut me off "kind"? Do I need to be "kind" back? How? Words and ideals tell polished stories that are hard to apply to real life.
I wonder if any of you hold ideals that you wish were better integrated into life. How could you better integrate one of them?