“You’re an idealist, and that’s a good thing, but an idealist is always suffering.” A Priest whom I saw for spiritual direction in college once said this to me as we walked around campus together. It was a profound moment for me because he articulated so simply and accurately what was so obvious from my experience, but what I could not have adequately put into words myself. It was, if you will, an “aha moment.” At the time, it felt like somewhat of a breakthrough, as I now had a clearer idea, an accurate description, of what was plaguing me—namely the tendency to make my own ideas about morality and perfection in the service of God the criteria by which to judge my actions.
In other words, I was going against the Biblical injunction, “on your own intelligence do not rely” (Proverbs 3:5), and making an idol of my own ideas about what constitutes a good and holy life. If we understand idealism in this way—as making an idol of one’s own ideas—then we must say that it is never a good thing. My Priest friend, of course, was not speaking so technically in providing me counsel, but he nevertheless led me to reflect on and glean the profound philosophical and theological errors at the heart of idealism.
More importantly, he led me to a conviction that is profoundly important for us as Catholic men to understand: we will never find rest in God until we conform our own understanding of what God asks and desires of us, to God’s own understanding of what He asks and desires of us.
Why is this so important for us to grasp? Because we live in a culture of the highly individualistic, self-made man. For those of us who are millennials, we live in the generation which was fed the lie that we could do anything if we “just set our minds to it.” Most fatally of all, we live in a society that worships success—and not just success, but success at big things. We have been taught to dream…and dream big.
To be sure, it is not as though there is no truth or goodness in any of these ideas. But when their influence is made to preclude other necessary and fundamental realities—e.g., the need for community, the reality of human weakness, growth through trial and failure, vocation as opposed to a “dream”—they utterly fail us. For, they forbid us to take into consideration those things that humble us and draw us outside of ourselves to others—and more importantly, to The Other, who is God. And thus, we live lives utterly pervaded by anxiety, and pressure and stress. Rather than being still and resting in the knowledge that He is God (Ps 46:10), we hurry about trying (and so often failing) to achieve the ideals of the one whom we have made our god—namely, our very selves.
Now, to be very clear, the fact that idealism in this sense is a bad thing does not mean that God does not ever call us to great things. Rather, it means that our ideas about the great things to which He is leading us do not always and necessarily comport with the reality of His call for our lives. Of course, some are also called to more humble lives, lives that simply embody these words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians: “[A]spire to live a tranquil life, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your [own] hands” (1 Thes 4:11). God may be calling you to do great things with great love, or small things with great love. What matters is not what the call is, but who it is that is beckoning us. For, our ways are always meant to lead us to ourselves, whereas God’s ways are always meant to lead us to Himself. And as Augustine says: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (Augustine, The Confessions).
It is essential that we find this rest in God by listening to His voice and discerning His will for our lives. Without such rest, we are impeded greatly from reaching our desired end—the ideal, if you will—which is eternal life through, with and in Christ Himself.