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The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
How do I become Baha’i?

Idealist or Realist—Which One are You?

David Langness | Updated Dec 11, 2020

PART 1 IN SERIES Realism vs Idealism

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Nov 10, 2016

PART 1 IN SERIES Realism vs Idealism

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist. – George Carlin

Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths? – Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth.

All skepticism is a kind of idealism. – Soren Kierkegaard

Man is born a predestined idealist, for he is born to act. To act is to affirm the worth of an end, and to persist in affirming the worth of an end is to make an ideal. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Do you think of yourself as an idealist or a realist; a dreamer or a skeptic?

Before you answer, let’s look at the dictionary definitions first, just to clarify both terms:

re·al·ist  n. 1. One who tends to view or represent things as they really are, one who faces facts and acts in a practical way

i·de·al·ist  n. 1. One who cherishes or pursues high or noble principles, purposes and goals; a visionary

Many people probably see themselves as a combination of the two—but I’ll try to convince you, in the course of these essays, that you should begin thinking of yourself as a true idealist.

I know—that’s a big lift. In the modern age, numerous polls have shown that a majority of people tend to describe themselves primarily as realists. This pragmatic, prevailing point of view, seen as a hard-headed acceptance of things as they are rather than dreamer’s view of things as they could potentially be, fits our contemporary materialistic outlook. We tend to believe in what we can perceive with our five senses, trust the “reality” of the physical world, and distrust the existence of anything we can’t immediately grasp. When someone says “I’m a realist,” we view them as analytical, tough and smart. When someone says “I’m an idealist,” we often view them as naïve and inexperienced, somebody with their head in the clouds.

Have you noticed, though? This viewpoint often changes with age.

Young people—children, adolescents and young adults—usually have idealistic tendencies. They typically carry ideals, principles, values and goals in their hearts and minds that aspire to something greater and loftier than what exists today in the “real” world. We know that historically, the world changes because the idealistic newer generations see a new potential reality and act to bring it about; while the realistic older generations may resist that change.

RELATED: What Is the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program?

Realists may not hold cynical or negative points of view, but they do sometimes view things through less than hopeful eyes. Realists tend toward the rational, weighing their options before taking any action. Realists try to make safe, prudent, practical choices. Realists focus on the present and the immediate future, carefully expecting that things will inevitably go wrong at some point. Realists, for the most part, tend toward pessimism.

RELATED: Not a Cynic: How to Maintain an Open Point of View

Idealists, though, tend toward optimism. Idealists take risks. Idealists believe that they can realize their dreams and noble ambitions, with enough grit and gumption and energy. The world’s idealists—mostly but not entirely young—tend to be positive thinkers and doers. Idealists focus on the long-term and more distant future.

Which one are you? How big are your dreams?

The Baha’i teachings urge all of us to become “divine” idealists—by using the “virtues, powers and ideal faculties” that distinguish us from everything else in nature. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith and the authorized interpreter of the Baha’i writings, wrote:

Man possesses conscious intelligence and reflection; nature is minus. This is an established fundamental among philosophers. Man is endowed with volition and memory; nature has neither. Man can seek out the mysteries latent in nature whereas nature is not conscious of her own hidden phenomena. Man is progressive; nature is stationary, without the power of progression or retrogression. Man is endowed with ideal virtues, for example intellection, volition, — among them faith, confession and acknowledgment of God, while nature is devoid of all these. The ideal faculties of man, including the capacity of scientific acquisition are beyond nature’s ken. These are powers whereby man is differentiated and distinguished from all other forms of life. This is the bestowal of divine idealism, the crown adorning human heads. Notwithstanding the gift of this supernatural power, it is most amazing that materialists still consider themselves within the bounds and captivity of nature. The truth is that God has endowed man with virtues, powers and ideal faculties of which nature is entirely bereft and by which man is elevated, distinguished and superior. We must thank God for these bestowals.

This “divine idealism,” Abdu’l-Baha says, is a “crown adorning human heads,” a “supernatural power” that elevates human beings above all other forms of life. Blessed with consciousness, endowed with the ability to see beyond the merely physical, and uniquely self-aware, we humans have the remarkable option of optimism or pessimism, of realism or idealism. The mere possession of such an option tells us that we have the opportunity to choose between hope and cynicism.

Let’s look, in the next essay in this series, at the philosophical basis behind that important choice.

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  • Mathieu Bacchous
    Jun 28, 2020
    1) there is no such thing as an idealist optimist. The words optimist and pessimist are reserved for realist. Idealists live in a bubble of their own. 2) It is true that as we age, we become realists as we should. Please use it to make calculated decisions. However when we are younger, we must be idealists. An adult idealist is an adult who is refusing to grow up. 3)Realists make the world go around while idealist get to play in it. To ask everyone to be an idealist is to ask the world to stop functioning. Never forget ...that you can only be an idealist because realists make the world go round. 4)an idealist adult is someone who cannot be a realist without going into pessimism, and they use idealism to protect themselves from facing reality.
  • Mioara Gram
    Nov 10, 2016
    This is a great one among others, dear David!! It comes in perfect resonance with my daughter's research for her talk on "Being Yourself" she will be giving for the third time, this coming Saturday. I cannot wait to pass to her your article. Thank you for your priceless service!!
    Here are some glimpses from our daughter's interest in this regarding:
    Appreciatively, Mioara
    • Hooshang S. Afshar
      Nov 11, 2016
      I tried this URL, it did not work. But I have a comment. What does "Being Yourself" mean? We humans are so complex in nature and so divers in character that it seems no one description ever fits. I think I am realist?
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