Idealism, Existential Depression, and Unitarian Universalism

IMG_1582(Somewhat edited text from my sermon given on Sunday, April 26, 2015, at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. This piece was inspired by a book by James T Webb, Ph.D.: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope)

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath


It starts something like this:

I read something in the New York Times or hear something on NPR about some aspect of health care. Perhaps it’s about affordability: sky-high deductibles on top of high premiums that keep people from seeking health care despite having insurance. Or maybe it’s about lack of access to dental care for low-income adults. Teeth are, of course, part of our bodies, and they are a part that can be damaged or diseased. Dental care isn’t a luxury, and teeth aren’t expendable, like an appendix (whose removal is generally covered, after that sky-high deductible). Yet for the poor, affordable and timely dental care can be near impossible to find.

Or maybe I go to work, to my job as a PA in a family practice that serves mostly the poor, addicted, and disenfranchised. Maybe I’ve spent too much time that day (time that causes other patients to wait for ages) searching for the doctor or medical center that will take a patient’s particular flavor of Medicaid, frustrated because this patient has something rare, something only a few surgeons in a large metropolitan area can manage well, and the best of those aren’t in her network. Or perhaps I’ve cared for a woman who lost her housing and is living out of her car. She has Medicaid as well, thus she has healthcare coverage (well, aside from dental care), but she can’t afford a place to live and has exhausted the meager resources of her friends. Her skin infection on her foot is getting worse, and her blood sugars are rising, which isn’t helping her infection. And why isn’t she taking her insulin? Because without a house, she has no refrigerator in which to keep it, and it’s terribly hot outside. Besides, if she takes it, she has to eat, and access to food isn’t predictable.

Whether via the news or the through the lives of my patients or the experience of a friend, I find myself in some mix of anger and despair over a myriad of healthcare wrongs in this nation and across the world. My husband is a fine conversational partner when I’m in this state, and he’s willing to nod and shake his head in turn, listening to the verse of the day: “Why don’t teeth matter? Why is it so hard to find quality mental health care for people of need? Couldn’t we take better care of patients if we had more time? What if the Affordable Care Act, despite all its limitations, disappears in the next election cycle?”

He’s patient through the chorus as well: “Why is it like this? Why don’t we care for people — really care?! Why do we focus on war and wealth and not on people?!”

It’s hard being an idealist.

I can’t recall a time in at least the past twenty years when I didn’t see the world in two painfully conflicting ways:  One way is filled with sunshine, hope, and clarity that what should be will be. That what is right and good and best will happen. It’s optimistic, in a way, brimming with faith in humanity and hope for the future. Optimistic, but not giddily or mindlessly so. Maybe it’s more high-minded, but not, at least mostly, haughty. It is a view finds solace and hope in morals and values and virtues, the sorts that seem universal. Justice. Equity. Compassion, Respect for human dignity. Equality. Fairness. Kindness. Goodness. Love. Patience. When I wake with this view of the world, I’m certain that I’ll parent a bit better than the day before, sure I’ll be a more loyal friend, a more compassionate partner, and at least a bit more dedicated to getting some exercise. It’s the same part that trusts that after this election, we’ll have healthcare for all, equal pay for women, solutions for poverty, and justice for the immigrant. I even believe that someday, dental care will count as medical care. It’s the side that can find the way out of the bed even on the darkest morning because the sun will always rise. It is my idealist who wakes most mornings.

Idealism, the tendency to see the world in terms of how things should be, is often touted as a virtue. It can be that. For the individual, idealism can provide energy, fuel hope, and inspire action. It’s exhilarating to think about what could be if only. It’s hopeful to consider the vast amount of human potential this world holds. It’s inspiring to consider what one set of hands, one pair of  ears, one mouth, and one pair of feet can to when combined with a compassionate heart, and an outward-thinking mind.

Idealists are catalysts for change: they see the mismatch between what is and what should be. Some idealists act on the distress borne out of seeing that mismatch: they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, march for the oppressed, fight for the downtrodden, and otherwise work to see the world move closer to their ideals, all for the betterment of humanity and the planet. Idealism in community can do even more. When people with similar “shoulds” and “could bes” work together, powerful change can happen. Idealists working together  is what brought emancipation to the slaves, the vote to women, civil rights to Blacks, and, slowly and steadily, marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Sounds just peachy, doesn’t it? Some days, and often at the end of other days, I see the world differently. I see what is and despair about whatever could be. In real life, the kind with limitations and failures and human beings and differing ideas of what should and could be, idealism is both a source of motivation as well as a source of stress and sadness. It’s just hard to watch the world and those humans, including oneself, not BE what one thinks SHOULD be. The world and its inhabitants just don’t always do what’s better for the world and those inhabitants. Add a fairly sharp mind to an idealist mindset (and many a bright person is idealistic), and it’s not hard to quickly think oneself from hopeful to existential funk. After all, the poor aren’t fed, not even in our own neighborhoods and schools. Dental care is an extra. Racism lives, and young black men continue to be on the losing end of justice, economic equity, and, too often, hope. Those with the privilege to protect use their power to harm those who can take no more harm. Gays and lesbians have the right to marry given and taken away in the same day. And I still lose my temper at my kids. Let the funk begin.

According to James T. Webb, PhD, expert in gifted education, and author of Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, “Bright, intense, caring, idealistic people are more likely to be disillusioned than many others, and along with disillusionment can come depression.” Does that list of characteristics remind of any people you know, perhaps, even, any people around you at this very moment?  Bright? Intense? Caring? Idealistic? And at least a bit discouraged or anxious about the state of the world? Does that statement resonate with you? You — and I — are not alone.

While clinical depression doesn’t strike every idealist, few idealists I’ve known escape disappointment punctuated by occasional outright despair when viewing the human condition. We learn our idealism from many places, but the first source is often our families of origin. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with my father that begin with concerns about something political and social, equitable health care, and ends up with both of us with our brows crinkled, shaking our heads, feeling more than a bit disappointed in our society if not our world. We’re not depressed, but we are discouraged. But what lies behind that discouragement? It’s not just the unmet ideals of our nation or the ones we personally fail to meet. It’s something more.

As humans, we look for meaning in our lives. When I teach biology class, I tell my students that the purpose of all living things is to procreate. It’s true, biologically speaking. The job of life is to preserve the species via reproduction.  As humans, of course, we find our meaning in more than just replacing ourselves. What we find meaning in varies from person to person and from one time in our lives to another time. Meaning can be found in our relationships with self, family, friends, and even the stranger. Meaning may be rooted in personal accomplishments, appearance, or possessions. It may be found in God, goddess, the pantheon of deities, or the assuredness that there is no divine being on whom to call. Some find meaning in money and jobs. And those same may find it in acts of charity performed with that money or within that job. We may find meaning in the intangible and immeasurable: love, honesty, compassion, hard work, pain, suffering, birth, and even death. We may find it in the silence between the measurables and immeasurables, the places where only the breath resides.

Wherever we find it, however we name it at this moment, what gives us meaning is inextricably linked to the existential questions: Who am I? What is important? What is my purpose? Why do I exist? What is there beyond the self? These questions are at the very heart of our search for meaning, and as we look for meaning in our lives, we are actually grappling with these big existential concerns — we are wrestling with the meaning of life overall.

These concerns aren’t products of a modern society, although modern conveniences and generally ample thinking time give us more opportunities to ponder over them. The ancients wondered about the meaning of life and other existential concerns, and our world’s religions exist out of the desire human beings have to explain not only the natural wonders that delight and terrify us but also to explain the human condition in all its glory and suffering.  But gaining scientific understanding of plagues, floods, and the Northern Lights does little to assuage our need to understand our place in the world under the firmament.

The external signs of our grappling for meaning are our shifting focus, our shuffling priorities, our ever-changing ways of being in the world. If I’m convinced (or at least hoping) that status or admiration by others is important to life, I’m likely to find meaning in my job, my income, my home, my possessions, and what is said about me at the water cooler or in the papers. If I’m wed to meaning in human relationships, I’m likely to seek to deepen my bonds to those around me. Our sense of meaning in the world points us towards ideals while driving our behaviors.

In the midst of these ideals, grappling, and even depression, there is hope. There is hope that doesn’t require abandoning ideals, although it does require understanding that many ideals are subjective. There is hope that does not depend on dogmatic beliefs in unseen forces. Hope that accepts that life is messy even when it’s working fairly well. Hope that isn’t escapism via work, media, social networks, material possessions, travel to far-away lands, or food and other chemical substances.  Hope. Not withdrawal into ourselves or collapse into the abyss of detachment or even anger.

Hope. The real McCoy. It is the antidote to this existential funk that so many idealists experience. After all, we can no more shake off our idealism than shed a decade from our lives. And, despite the pain it can cause, the pain of watching ideals go unmet, of seeing a world that seems to continually fight becoming better, I doubt many of us would give up our idealism even if we could. Idealism is, for many of us, what brought us to Unitarian Universalism. We were not content with an “easy God,” a guy in the sky with all the answers, pulling the strings, or, if we waited and listened, telling us which strings to pull. Or, perhaps, we’ve never had an easy God to ask, to blame, to beg, to cajole. Perhaps we’ve just come here because our ponderings of ideals and existential issues were rattling around in our heads, seeking the company of other idealists feeling thwarted by life. Or perhaps we’ve found this place for our children, desiring that their existential questions would find patient ears in this community of thinkers, lovers, and doers. Many of us came to this religion, Unitarian Universalism, with hope, the antidote to existential angst.

Unitarian Universalism offers, among other things, hope. It also encourages idealism and actively ponders the big questions. It encourages knowing ourselves. Our fourth principle (one of seven suggested as common thinking points by the UUA — not creed or dogma but rather a place to start) points us to this responsibility: We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

This is first a statement encouraging acceptance of ourselves as human beings — it is part of our natural, human self to wonder and search and to grapple with the big questions. Naming this part of ourselves, whether we consider our idealism and existential wonderings friend or foe, is exceptionally hard, as the mirror it requires to examine one’s self and one’s beliefs throws back images that we may interpret negatively. We do too little. We surf the net too much. We listen with too little attention. We act on our ideals too seldom and on our momentary drives too much. We worry about the small stuff too much. The list goes on. We fall short, and it hurts.

But to manage the recurring disillusionment all idealists face, it’s essential to start with the basic truth that you are who you are — an idealistic, flawed, and sometimes disappointed person who wants a better world. Embrace it. Your idealism is part of you. Embrace also that desire to search for meaning. That’s part of being human, as is the stumbling and bumbling we find ourselves doing as we sort through meaning and ideals. View this existential work as necessary human tasks taken on by fallible human beings in a messy world, and it’s not quite as daunting.

So what now? Now we turn to principle three: We affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. We don’t need to search for meaning and manage our ideals by ourselves. We’re here to help each other through both the pain of ideals unrealized and the search for meaning in our lives. We are also here to accept ourselves and each other as imperfect and unfinished beings, and, most importantly, not lesser people for it.

So we’ve accepted our idealism and that of our fellow travelers. What’s next? The rest of our Unitarian Universalists principles guide us there as well. They mention supporting democracy, working for justice, valuing our fellow travelers, caring for our planet and all the life it supports, treating all humans with compassion and dignity. These concepts (ideals in themselves, really) provide a route out of some of our pain, as they affirm the ideals we hold so true while nudging us to not just agree with them but to actively promote them in our world. The words that begin all are these: We affirm and promote. Affirming is the armchair, or perhaps pew, response. Promoting requires action, even if that action is speaking your mind to spread the word or signing a letter to your congressperson. We’re to do to the work that helps these ideals become actualized in the world. This work, even if it is small, helps us feel effectual in our world, and, as we work to serve others, we tend to set aside some of the noise in our head.

Idealism and its often accompanying existential angst and questioning can be abated by techniques that extend beyond Unitarian Universalism, of course.  Relationships can quiet the questioning voices, allowing us to find meaning in those human contact points as we give and receive. Just talking about the despair can help, as knowing one isn’t alone can often be an antidote to pain (recall sharing our sorrows?). But we needn’t just cry together. Laughter helps, too. Laughing at ourselves, at the absurdity of the world, laughing at the absurdity life often presents to us. Laughing requires stepping out of our heads enough to see that situations pass.

And all things pass, from obstinate congresses to “religious freedom” acts. Even wars and epidemics eventually end. If there is anything a look through history can tell us, it is that nations and our world changes. It’s not always for the better, but it’s not also always for the worse. Taking the long view can help the idealist. Not only can that look let us know how that problems — even the most dire ones — have been solved in peaceful ways before but that it is often idealists with persistence who make that happen. As I look out over this room, guess who I see? Idealists with persistence.

So go ahead. Hold onto your ideals.  Dream of a day when affordable health care (including dental care) for all is reality; a day when marriage is between two consenting adults who love each other, regardless of gender; a day when the color of your skin doesn’t affect the level o dignity and justice you receive; a day when caring for our planet is a top national agenda; or even a day when there isn’t a war to send our children to fight. Continue to grapple with the big questions, as it is only by questioning meaning that we shape our ideals and relate our existence to those ideals.  And as you go, hold onto hope, and help others hold onto hope as well.

Anne Frank:

It’s really a wonder I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because some of them seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because, in spite of everything I still believe that people are truly good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being transformed into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

– July 15, 1944