Shameless idealist

Are you an idealist? An optimist? A realist? Or are you in Eeyore’s camp?

In my Friday post, I wrote about my son’s visit to We Day in Montreal. He returned at the end of the day feeling what he called inspirationalized.  (He was so inspired, he invented a word.) The speakers motivated him, the dynamic atmosphere energized him, and a performance by Simple Plan certainly didn’t hurt either.

He came home with one souvenir of the day: a T-shirt with the phrase “Shameless Idealist” on the front.

I’ve never been more proud.

Craig and Marc Keilburger told the youth not to believe it when people tell them that they are too young to do anything meaningful. They told them not to listen when people tell them that their goals are impossible to reach. They encouraged the school groups in attendance to be shameless idealists.

Is idealism shameful?

In the fall, I reposted one of my pieces from this site to the blog site of This is part of the Emerging Spirit campaign of the United Church of Canada and it encourages open discussion about faith topics. The piece was entitled, “Top 10 reasons to belong to a faith community.” I received a comment in response that read:

“This sounds very idealistic to me.  It doesn’t match the reality of the churches I have attended.” did its job, because I wondered, “Am I idealistic? Is idealistic bad?”

Yes, I am shamelessly idealistic, and I don’t think it’s bad. I would rather be idealistic than pessimistic—two ideas that can’t ride in the car at the same time. But, I am also realistic. Idealism and realism can ride in the car at the same time.

I wrote that piece as a very personal reflection of my experience with church, so the “ideal” does exist. Do I believe that all churches are like that? I am realistic enough to say, of course not. I know, in fact, that it’s rarer than I would like. But my purpose in writing the piece was to encourage people to keep seeking the ideal, and when they visit a faith organization and it doesn’t meet those standards, to let the people there know why they’re not staying. (Incidentally, my church is ideal, but not perfect. But that’s a topic for another day.)

The Stockdale Paradox

This all reminds me of an idea put forth in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. (The audience for this book is supposed to be businesses, but I recommend it to anyone. The ideas apply to groups, families, and life in general.) One of the recommended steps for business improvement is “Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith).” He formulated this advice based on what he calls the Stockdale Paradox. The name comes from Jim Stockdale, who was in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp for eight years from 1965 to 1973. Admiral Stockdale made it home, but many didn’t. When asked, who didn’t make it he replied, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”

When I tell people about this paradox, several seconds of silence follow. The idea that positive thinkers don’t prevail doesn’t sit well. Most people congratulate themselves for optimism. But Admiral Stockdale said that, in their optimism, the people did not face the brutal facts of their reality. They performed the equivalent of putting fingers in their ears, humming, and saying, “I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you.” He said:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

It’s our choice.

We can ignore unpleasantness that we don’t want to face.
We can face the brutal facts and despair.
Or we can face the brutal facts and have faith that we will prevail in the end.

Craig and Marc Keilburger of Free the Children know the brutal facts of what’s out of balance in our world, and they are still shamelessly idealistic. Good on ‘em.

6 thoughts on “Shameless idealist

  1. Lynn

    Oh, man, can I relate to this. Having lived over three years with advanced cancer, I constantly struggle to accept the devastating reality of this disease without giving up hope that somehow I will find the miracle of a cure. These two concepts are in opposition and in constant struggle with one another. I was not aware of the Stockdale Paradox and am glad to know that the concept has a name and that someone has written so extensively on this topic. Thank you!

    1. Arlene Post author

      It does make it easier to think of the two concepts working together, rather than being in opposition. We’re facing the brutal facts together – never lose faith!

      1. Heather

        Arlene, your son doesn’t stand a chance at being mediocre…..lovely posting, you have lots to be proud of!

        We had an amazing Vow of Silence Day thanks to the Action Crew. Thank you always for your support…..and thanks for challenging my mind with your words. H

      2. Arlene Post author

        Thanks for your kind words. I think he’s pretty cool, too. And, challenging our minds is what life is all about, right? That’s the best compliment I could receive.

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