They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
— TS Eliot, The Rock
We did composer study today for the first time since Christmas break. I kept meaning to do it throughout the entire month of January, of course, but you know how it goes. Some people were sick, and then I got a little sick, and then we had some sad things happen, and so I was running the bare minimum version of my morning Circle Time, which then became a habit I needed to break. It took a couple weeks to work back up to our full length (two hours this year — not usual for us, but it’s working well).
So here we are: almost halfway through February and doing our first composer study of the year.
Depending on things like personality and where we are in our homeschool journey, some would call this a success and others would call it a failure. It’s probably good to see it both ways because the reality is that it would have been ideal if we’d done it in January, but it’s also better to get back on the horse rather than pouting on the ground just because we fell.
And that’s really a secret of successful homeschooling, I think: not being defeated when you fall down. It’s not that the successful practitioners have never fallen; it’s that they’re expert at getting back up.
I’ve heard the complaints before about social media — especially Instagram. The pictures are crushing because they’re so perfect. We calculate our personal totals and find we don’t add up. It makes us feel like we can’t do this thing in real life.
I’ve also heard the rebuttals. Don’t take the pictures away! They are inspiring and encourage us to do better!
And sort of like our composer study situation, I’d say these can both be true. For one person, the pictures are crushing because they touch the idealism nerve. For another, they are inspiring because they bolster the ideals.
Idealism Meets Prudence
When I was young(er), I hated it when people told me not to be so idealistic. Older people were, in my opinion, worsening the whole world by saying things like that. There is a part of present-me that still agrees with past-me — especially in my opinions concerning those folks who told me to “just wait” until the honeymoon sparkle wore off of my marriage or “just wait” until my babies were teenagers — implying then I’d see how awful marriage and family are. Those people really were in a hurry for other people to be as unhappy and ungrateful as they were.
But there were other voices, and they were encouraging me in the way of wisdom. While the wisdom of wasting such advice on 28-year-old me is debatable, me in my 40s sees the point.
The unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection.
It’s the unrealistic part that gets people concerned. Idealism is the reflex that makes some want to chuck those Instagram photos right out the window and maybe the children with them.
The temptation to swing this way — to dispense with all of it once and for all — is real and must be guarded against. Just because we’re frustrated doesn’t mean ideals don’t exist. The second you toss your ideals out with the idealism, you become that bitter person, griping in the corner, telling the smiling young passersby to “just wait.”
Instead, the proper response is pursuit of prudence.
In On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior defines prudence as a practical wisdom rooted in the ability to foresee the consequences of our actions. She touches on idealism as it relates to prudence:
[W]e’ve all heard advice … that seems right — yet is impossible to apply to a particular situation. One notices this often with pundits and commentators who are wont to spout platitudes that sound wise in theory yet prove disastrous when applied to an actual situation.
Politicians rather specialize in this sort of thing, creating programs based on feelings and never measuring outcomes (which often directly conflict with their stated goals). If you think about it, this is idealism: imagining perfect outcomes, dreaming up a “perfect” way to get there, and then completely denying reality when the path is taking you opposite the goal.
Does this mean I think Instagram photos are Pied Pipers, leading us all into the mountain (or off the happiness cliff). No! But if we’re caught up in idealistic systems promising us perfect results, we’re going to view everything through that lens.
You see, idealism and prudence can have the same goals, but idealism denies there are obstacles while prudence tries to anticipate the obstacles and how to deal with them. This is a small but powerful difference.
In Finish, Jon Acuff calls perfectionism “the enemy of done,” and any of us who have ever been tempted to throw in the towel — to quit because it all went wrong — know exactly what he means.
The problem with idealism isn’t its ideals. It’s the unreality in which it insists on going its own way, rejecting anything that doesn’t fit with the perfect Instagram photos, including its own daily life.
The strength of Prudence is that she firmly grasps her ideals while totally getting it. She doesn’t think challenges are unusual. She’s not surprised one bit when school lessons are derailed because someone woke up with the stomach flu. She doesn’t think the fact the day was hard is evidence that something is wrong with what she’s doing. Life is hard, she reminds herself. That’s why we need ideals.
So yes, feel free to chuck your idealism when you’re ready. Defrost those perfectionism ice cubes that keep you from moving forward. But hold tight to those ideals because you’re going to need them: they’re the stars by which Prudence, your faithful advisor, is going to navigate.
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