Taking Issue With Idealism


“[He] is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of the truth-with a capital T. But every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its goodness.” – Albert Camus

I do not suffer idealists lightly, nor do I have much of a soft spot for dreamers. Before you reach that wonderful age where you can vote, smoke and die for your country, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to hold tight to the notion that yours is the generation that’s really gonna go out there and change the world; that you will succeed where the entirety of humanity that has come before you has failed. After that, I really don’t have the patience or desire to listen to you wax altruistic on how you’re going to end poverty or eliminate gun violence in America or cure whatever societal ill happens to have caught your fancy that month. Let me spoil the mystery for you: you’re not ending any of those things. The only time we will live in a world with no poverty or gun violence is when that world is devoid of people to impoverish and shoot. Ideals are the refuge of those who, through youth or inexperience, have little direct contact with the problem they’re allegedly solving.

This past November, former Secretary of State Clinton gave a speech on what was being hailed as PEPFAR’s Blueprint for Creating an AIDS-free Generation. In the course of her remarks, Clinton said that if we kept on trucking down the path we are on now, “the pandemic and an AIDS-free generation will be in sight1.” Now, ask anyone who serves the HIV+ population if an AIDS-free generation is in sight and, regardless of whether they’re from San Francisco or South Africa or anywhere in between, their response will fall somewhere on a continuum ranging from that’s still a ways away to are you out of your damn mind? You see, there are an estimated 34 million people currently living with HIV across the globe and 19 million of those people don’t even know they’re infected2. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the State Department was most loudly trumpeting its gains, there are still 3 people newly infected with the disease for every 2 that are put on treatment. Hell, The District of Columbia—a city you would expect to be on the forefront of attacking the AIDS epidemic seeing as how it’s the place what where all the funding decisions are made—has an HIV prevalence rate of 3%, higher than some Sub-Saharan African countries3. Yes, a great deal of progress has been made in treating the disease and providing that treatment to 8 million people worldwide, but that’s still less than 25% of everyone living with HIV and I find it hard to believe that any disease that goes untreated in 75% of the folks it infects is going to go away any time soon.

I realize that I may coming off a little doom and gloom here, but I’ve found a healthy dose of skepticism is quite productive, provided it’s accompanied by fact. The whole concept of idealistic versus humanist thinking has been on my mind a great deal lately, as I completed a Masters in Social Work program last month and I have been asked on nearly a daily basis some variant of “what are you going to do to make the world a better place?” My stock reply has been to smile politely and say that I’d be happy just making one county a better place, which may sound glib—because it is—but is also a fairly accurate representation of my worldly aspirations. I’ve never been a fan of self proclaimed worldshakers and peacemakers because it’s been my experience that the grander the pronouncement, the more minute the action accompanying it. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, and I’m sure those who color me cynical will bring up the Gandhis and the Martin Luther Kings of the world as irrefutable proof that I’m just a jaded asshole, but that’s like pointing at Barack Obama or Oprah and saying we live in a post-racial society.

When I first arrived at the University of Maryland-Baltimore’s School of Social Work, I quickly noticed that the incoming class of graduate students was comprised of two distinct sections. On the one hand were the men and women of learning. On the other hand were the country priests4. Which category one fell into was evident for most folks from the very first class when the professor would inevitably ask his pupils why they wanted to get into social work in the first place. These sorts of “getting to know you exercises” are normally a glorified time-suck designed to stretch out the pointlessness of a first class beyond being a simple 15 minute recitation of the course syllabus, but this time around, it was remarkably useful. The women of learning were invariably fresh out of college or, for a small subset, about 30 years removed from college and embarking on a second career. They all had a giddiness about them as they spoke about their passions and aspirations, like they were finally approaching the end of a roller coaster line, and their hopes contained multitudes and vagaries. The country priests were older, or at the very least more experienced. For the most part they had already spent some time working in the field with the populations they were passionate about and their hopes and dreams were direct and muted. If the woman of learning wanted to help needy children and fix our ailing public school system, the country priest expressed a desire to learn more about play therapy and techniques on how to mobilize parents and community members behind local schools. The women of learning were focused on the outcome, while the country priests were more interested in the process.


I’m going to go ahead and say she’s a model…no actual student would be that happy to be in a university library.

Within a month, much of the glimmer had gone missing from the women of learning’s eyes and was replaced with the leaden glaze of someone who had accidentally inhaled paint fumes for an hour. A select few still maintained a spirit of imperturbable optimism, but most walked around in a prize fighter’s daze, seeing double of everything and wishing that the world would stop spinning long enough to get off. Most of these youthful scholars had gone from high school to college and from college to this. Maybe they had a semester of field work during undergrad where they ventured a few miles off campus to shadow a counselor or teacher, but for the most part these women were working on theory. They may have learned about how to do the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy in college, but they never learned how to execute those basics with a child who hasn’t had a square meal all weekend and is hopped up on enough ADHD medication to sedate a pack mule. It’s simple enough to talk about relapse prevention techniques during a seminar on drug and alcohol treatment, but what do you do when your client is court ordered, doesn’t want to get sober and will violate her parole if she tests positive for anything stronger than a cup of coffee? Most of what these women learned in undergrad is what to do if conditions were perfect and anyone who has ever worked in social services can tell you perfect conditions don’t come around often. The women who accepted this fact and learned how to adapt their expectations and techniques to difficult circumstances will, I have little doubt, go on to be wonderful social workers. Those who hold tight to their delusions of altruistic grandeur will burn out, and they will burn out fast.

This may sound dour and depressing to some of you and I can’t realistically expect that anything I’ve said will have changed your mind. All I can say is that I find this approach to social work, and to life in general, to be fulfilling and gratifying in a way that my youthful idealism never was. As a human being, I am constitutionally incapable of permanently fixing anything or saving anyone. I cannot eradicate racism or cure mental illness any more than I can trap the wind. The only thing I can do is fight these things without guarantee that I will effect any change and without certainty that any progress I make will last. Ultimately, life is a zero sum game. No matter how much influence we have during life, we all must face the inevitability that we will die, and I’ve yet to meet a dead man who was able to guard the progress he made while he was living. The joy is in the struggle. Any successes you glean along the way are ancillary benefits that are to be celebrated, but not expected.

An idealist is someone who wants to end human suffering. A humanist is someone who wants to help suffering humans. I’ll let you decided which approach is more satisfying.


4The social work program I attended was about 90% women, so from here on out I’m just going to refer to one category as being “women of learning” and you can assume that the vast majority of the country priests in question are women…needless to say, the metaphorical priests are not going to be Roman Catholic.

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