Idealism and the Young

My teenage years were the 1960s, a tremendously idealistic time. It was quite clear then that war was wrong, racism was wrong, chasing money was wrong, not loving was wrong. But I was always having to listen to older people assure me that someday I’d get real and grow up. I never knew how to respond to that. I didn’t have enough life experience to understand where they were coming from. Now we’re in a time where you have a candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, arousing the idealism of the young, and the young are responding. And you have another set of people denigrating their idealism and telling them to grow up. And this time the denigrators are people my age. I understand who they are, what they are saying, and why they’re saying it. They are not the people of my generation who grew up; they’re the ones who got old.

We live in a particularly materialistic era of a particularly materialistic civilization. A lot of us tend to see ideals as having no real foundation, that they’re just “brain activity” in a fundamentally meaningless universe. But the essence of existence is not material. What it is is beyond language, although we’ve come up with words for it — “spiritual” being one of them, one that has gotten tired from misuse. There is a set of universal ideals that grow out of that essence. Most of them are obvious, but not all. You don’t need to cultivate them for them to exist. They are inherent within us when we are born. In many of us, as we get older, as we compromise ourselves over and over again, those ideals grow dull and remote. Many of us eventually turn against them. We don’t believe in them anymore. And then we call it growing up. But real growing up is something else entirely: It’s understanding how difficult it is to bring our ideals into our practical lives and the patience we need to accomplish that. We can’t ever abandon those ideals. The farther we get from them, the older and grayer and more meaningless our everyday life feels. I’m not really interested in what a lot of folks call pragmatism. To me, it looks more like death.

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15 Responses to “Idealism and the Young”

  1. Bruce Says:

    “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”- John Steinbeck

    • markbittner Says:

      Steinbeck has been in my being for the last few days. He was my first favorite author, and Judy’s, too. She once wrote a letter to him. Judy and I drove down to Cayucos last Friday and passed through Salinas and the valley he often wrote about. (We’ve been to the Steinbeck Center twice.) When I drive through the area I always feel him, feel his books. I was in a bookstore in Morro Bay and stopped to look through “Sweet Thursday.”

  2. Kate Says:

    Well said, as always! I hope that you will one day take all your blog posts and publish them as a book. Your words inspire me and also make me feel like I’m not so alone with my thoughts.

    • markbittner Says:

      Thank you. I write them because I often feel I’m alone in my thoughts. I have thought about doing something similar to what you say–publish them as a book. They would have to be refined a bit and expanded. I usually have to write them in a hurry. My other work makes the writing of these posts feel wearisome, and if I don’t get them out quick, they don’t happen.

  3. Tim Mueller, mostly Says:

    Far too many of the young students I teach are already old and gray. Not only do they feel trapped like the rest of us in this materialistic prison we’ve created, but they’ve been raised to believe that this is the norm–inescapable, unavoidable, and much to be desired. They fervently desire to rebel, but they have no language with which to vocalize their idealistic/spiritual longings. They have already internalized the American belief that the remedy for our materialistic predilections is simply another shopping spree. Watching these folks attempt to extricate themselves from this straitjacket, while at the same time shopping online for a trendier one, is a sad thing. Far too often, when I speak of alternatives, I am met with laughter or derision. Curiously, there is also admiration, because I am using “my right” to speak my mind, even though it’s obvious I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

    Materialism, by definition, makes us stupid. The frenzy of our lives masks excruciating laziness and indolence; the cleverness of our conversations is simply a symptom of the mental chaos and distractability that the medical community labels “ADD”.

    Mere survival in times like this speaks of despair. Hope pushes us not only to survive, but to thrive. I remain hopeful, thinking that one day these elderly youngsters will figure it out. They’ll storm the retirement homes–not to exact revenge, but to invite us old Baby Boomers to join them in the march to freedom and sanity and love.

  4. Margaret Benbow Says:

    Yes, Steinbeck was for real. Thank you for mentioning him. He had a humility unusual for writers today. Once when he was staying in a migrant camp there was a flash flood that trapped people in a remote area . Risking his life, he saved many. Later he wrote about the flood, but not his part in it.

    In your post, you mention the political contest between Clinton and Sanders and contrast what you see as the qualities of their supporters: idealists for Bernie, “old” cynics for Hillary who are comfortable with a corrupt system. But Hillary and Bernie voted the same 93% of the time. That being so, it’s hard for me to see one as Jesus and the other as Judas. Also there’s the ice-cold pragmatism Bernie showed in his undoubted pandering to the gun lobby; and
    dropping his snow-white Purity robe as an Independent last year to officially become a Democrat, because he needed the Dems.
    I don’t think it’s “old” to notice these things. There are many, many realities that, like everybody else, I wish I didn’t have to face. But realities are going to face us, whether we like it or not.

    • markbittner Says:

      This was not about Sanders. I specifically avoided making this a Sanders/Clinton comparison. It’s called “Idealism and the Young.” The only purpose for the reference to Sanders was to explain what made me think of the question. The people criticizing the young idealists are not just some of Clinton’s supporters, but a wide range of people. It’s a common trait of Americans to ridicule idealism. But if we have a “great” aspect to our character, it is our latent idealism. It isn’t our wealth or our power. To my way of thinking, those are the things that make us reprehensible.

  5. joe Says:

    Defenitely i feel the bern,always have,(i’m canukistan ndp,a proud “northern moon bat” 😉 but being the son of frugal immigrants “you have your health,family,friends,food,wine;you’re Already rich,quit complaining! ” i’ve come to realize over the years that almost as if by osmosis,i’ve clarified for myself a kind of pagan understanding of the world (in the italian alps at xmas,”la beffana” a witch,broom & all, brings gifts or coal to kids,good or bad,but consider that coal was precious heat in the alps,so not so mean,just reproachful) that goes way back in the european alps,pretty much all of them,whatever country they might belong to;defined as such: -that which brought you forth,sustains you,& to which you shall return,is all around you,
    Nature;furthermore,as the son of labourers,i grew to rapidly understand that a house,or home,or garden,or orchard,is not something to be flipped or traded for something as fleeting or immaterial as Money,i know from observation & shared experience that the mortar,the bricks,the carpentry,the plumbing,the electrics of a home contain somewhere in them drops of literal Blood & Sweat (of someone’s family members) & most precious of all,Time;that which cannot be bought,bargained,or negotiated,the reaper decides,absolutely & always when it ends,not us.They literally gave part of their Lives to these buildings,our homes,to flip these for money is to sell a part of someone’s life,if they were lovingly,artfully built,then you’re literally selling an Icon,a material object that contains part of a life that was brought forth by nature,the bigger picture,some would call it divinity,but visible,verifiable & incarnate.

    Money is immaterial,heaven or hell as well,nirvana,ditto.If people thought there was only this one life to live,would they go to war? If there were no perceived or believed guarantee strangers would know your name after death,would we conquer,build monuments ? Would we waste,be so cruel & indifferent to ourselves & others?

    as for “realists” (non-idealists) (those who claim to truly,lucidly,know what’s “real”,
    almost always right wing,or passive,or cynical), if “god or gods” created the universe,then what would we call those who would claim the power to define Reality ?

    Idealism is more often than not rooted in the knowledge that we stand on the shoulders of the courage of our predecessors,in having suffered,in having found a different way to do things,& having found,that sometimes,it works,so why not try?

    joe 😉

    • Bennett Says:

      You have some good points in your reply. But your typing errors make it difficult to read. Try typing in a word processor & use spell / grammar check to help eliminate the errors. Then copy & paste your reply. It will make it much easier for your readers.

  6. Margaret Benbow Says:

    Mark, you did specifically mention Sanders and equated his message and his young followers with idealism. I have very high respect for idealism which proceeds from knowledge of actual possibilities. Strong trees are rooted. I don’t see a healthy future for idealism floating from some vague Fantasyland. I don’t believe it’s an honest message for a politician to claim that, if elected, he will somehow wave his magic wand and declare, “Let it be so.” Sadly, it will not be so.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes, I did specifically mention Sanders, but only broadly, as the one who is arousing the latent idealism in the young. But the post is not about Sanders. It’s about idealism in and of itself. I don’t think Sanders is quite idealistic enough, frankly. The world needs an eruptive flow of authentic idealism. But all in good time. Idealism does not grow out of earthbound pragmatism. The ideal is, by definition, beyond. We need to learn to bring it from the beyond into this world. And I think your line about magic wands and easy declarations represent more your feelings about him and the threat you see him presenting to Clinton than his actual character. As far as it goes, I do support him, but I’m not a “Berniebot.” I don’t think he goes quite far enough. But he does recognize the need for a top to bottom upsetting of the system.

  7. joe Says:

    Dear Ms Benbow,(& others?)

    “knowledge of actual possibilities” usually means it’s already been tried & proven,but someone had to Try & Then Prove,didn’t they?

    Your GPS works because of einstein’s theory of relativity,without it,you’d aim for the corner store & end up in pasedena ! 🙂

    “imagination is more important than knowledge” Einstein.

    Other gps reference:

    “Somebody forgot to tell (steve) Woz (niack) that to make a p.c. that small,integrated & compact was physically impossible,being unaware of this,he did it 😉 steve jobs.

    2 films i’d recommend: Who killed the electric car? (documentary) & The Martian (yup,matt damon)

    I spoke with an astronomy & physics prof friend of mine & only One thing in the martian couldn’t be done & hasn’t been proven,i leave you to guess which one after having seen the film.

    When my grandmothers were born,respectively 1897-1898,alternating current,plumbing,functional electricity,antibiotics,flight & a woman’s being a legal free Person or having a right to vote or property hadn’t happened yet,rome considered that women,like animals,had no soul,not even that.Every year,tuberculosis Killed one seventh of the world’s population,Every year.

    A solution to,changing all of the above was Theory.

    Before i was even old enough for Pre-Kindergarden my parents woke me up in the middle of the night & tried to explain,pointing at the black & white electrohome television & at the sky.that we had landed on the MOON.

    Since then,Sally Ride has been part of a challenger space shuttle crew,& Iceland has a female president.They jailed their fraudulent,reckless bankers,told the IMF to f-off,suffered for a bit,& now they’re Back on top.

    Ask any grandmother (or 80-100 yr old person) what they’ve seen & lived in their lifetime v.s. what they might have expected.

    “The only limits,given time & effort,are the ones we place on ourselves,”

    This expression,considering humanity’s last 400 yrs of history,strikes me as arguably historically accurate,no ?

    p.s. from civil rights activist to mayor to senator to presidential candidate consistent walk-the-talk over the space of 35 yrs Not enough experience or deep enough roots?

    joe 😉

  8. Margaret Benbow Says:

    Joe, I like trailblazers as much as you do, but I don’t see any such genius of fresh achievement in Bernie. He can’t even stand up to the gun lobby. He voted the same as Hillary 93% of the time. That isn’t a throwaway statistic. It’s something for us to seriously ponder. When a true political messiah appears–I keep hoping for one, and hoping we’ll recognize him or her. But if you take away Sanders’ adorability factor–who doesn’t respond to a charismatic, feisty old guy stumping out on stage and at least looking as if he’s speaking truth to power?–I don’t see that there’s much left. His followers fluff up his record as much as they can, but they remind me, with sadness, of worshippers adorning an image with their own poignant hopes and dreams. How many times have we seen the photo of him struggling with policemen at a demonstration? It was in Chicago, his backyard, and he prudently stayed there. His fine was $25. He did leave Chicago for a one-time event, the March on Washington. Hillary went south and registered farm workers for the vote. She went undercover to record serious abuses. She doesn’t flaunt any pictures. Civil rights workers were sometimes murdered, and the serious ones didn’t prance around being photographed. The difference between their contribution is that he risked a bad GPA for his activities. She risked her life. That’s another thing to ponder. As for Sanders’ contribution as a senator, I went to and checked the last seven bills that he authored. They had lovely green names involving clean air and workplace democracy and Justice Is Not For Sale. gave all but one a 1-2% chance of passing. The bill to preserve a stand of oaks is unlike the others since it has a small but not impossible chance of passing.
    This is typical of his lackluster career as a senator. “Progressive”? He voted against a bill that would have allowed Sandy Hook parents to sue gun manufacturers. He’s the boychick of the gun lobby.
    I could go on and on. But our POTUS, the most powerful man or woman in the world, should not be someone whose speeches consist of repeating the word Establishment over and over while stabbing a forefinger; someone who doesn’t know who rules North Korea; someone whom minorities have rightly spotted as a lightweight; someone who, in any and all ways, is not up to the job.

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