Idealism inspires, realism works

How do you deal with cynicism? Its extreme opposite is not enough. An ability to see things as they are can help.

June 12, 2016 05:00 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:47 pm IST

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Among the responses I received for last fortnight’s column on dealing with cynicism were a few that pointed to the difficulty of keeping hope alive in the face of repeated failure. How can one avoid becoming a cynic when it seems like things never work out?

At the other end of the spectrum from cynicism (a general attitude of mistrust, in both people and processes) is idealism (the belief that it is possible to live according to one’s principles, that perfection is attainable). While one might lead you to not try hard enough, to give up too easily, and blame the system and other people for it, the other might blind you to the way things actually are.

And somewhere in between the two is what we call realism.

A realist sees the world for what it is. She has the ability to set both cynicism and idealism aside and avoid extreme pessimism or unfounded optimism. What differentiates a realist from a cynic is that the realist uses the understanding of how things are to see how things can be changed. And what differentiates the realist from the idealist is that the realist does not aim for perfection, but for improvement — and can see the limits of ideals without necessarily giving them up.

It’s important to believe in an ideal world, and to hold fast to the hope that perfection can be achieved. But it’s also important to ask questions such as: how far are we from that ideal? What can we do to close the distance? What is possible? What is doable? Is the course we are on the right one to take us there? Is there something in our expectations of ourselves and our situation that we need to change?

Whether we are talking about life, studies, or work, what gets us through it all with some measure of success and happiness is a mixture of idealism and realism. You need the idealism to wake up each day and believe that things will go well, that sincerity and hard work is going to get you to where you want to go, that systems — and people — are essentially good. But as you go through your day, you also need the realism to see where it is not going the way it is supposed to, and to analyse your course of action, or to change it if necessary. While it is great to aspire for the ideal, it is important to recognise that we may still be far from it, and why.

One of the problems with idealism is that it leads us to assume that we are living in an ideal system, and we function on the basis of that assumption. Let’s take a simple situation like taking public transport. In an ideal world, buses and trains would run exactly on time, and there would be nothing to stop us from planning our day according to the published schedule. But the reality is that buses and trains are often late, and plans need to factor in the delays. An idealist would have no back-up plan while a realist will consider the possibility of breakdown, and therefore make allowances for delays. Some might say there is a fine line between idealism and foolishness, especially where public systems are concerned!

Idealists tend to not look for shortcomings or flaws — in themselves or others, or in systems. A realist, on the other hand, is more able to see these and plan around them — but without getting pessimistic. The realist will understand that she not be able to do anything about a flaw in the system, but will try to manage the way she deals with it. The mother of a young medical student was recounting to me how her son was finding medical school extremely challenging because of the amount of memorisation required, and the huge emphasis on recall. “He is a very idealistic student, believes that studying is about understanding everything fully — and this is just not possible, given the short semesters and the huge portions.”

His fellow students had learnt very quickly that there was a technique to picking and choosing portions to study — just enough to do well in the exams. The effort was directed at managing the exam rather than mastering all the material. The best way, of course, is to do something in between: read in order to understand, but select carefully so that you are able to cover enough of the portions to handle the examination. Finding that balance, however, is an art!

Idealism is great when it is an aspiration and an attitude, but one has to take care that it does not lead to illusions or unrealistic expectations. But it is very important to emerge from one’s ideals from time to time, to take a reality check and feel the ground beneath one’s feet!

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. Email:

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