CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #18
WHAT IS IDEALISATION?
Idealisation is the psychological process whereby we bring an exalted pre-definition to our world – to a person, event or thing – and expect that person, event or thing to fit the definition. When the idealisation is particularly entrenched, we may not even recognise the awful contradictions between our exalted pre-definitions and the real world. Or, we may note the contradictions but assume that it is the world and not our exalted pre-definition that must change. Idealisation is thus accompanied by a good deal of wilful and irrational behaviour. It can also lead to violent behaviour.
Needless to say, if we are idealising our world, we have first idealised ourselves and our place in that world. And such self-idealisation carries with it a good deal of self-hatred and moral confusion – despite the fact that the idealisation may, ostensibly at least, manifest itself as maturity, dependability and moral rectitude. It is a life built on pretence, no matter how many "right" and "true" things we claim. It is also a paper volcano – of more or less significant proportions – waiting to explode.
Idealisation may be passing or chronic. Passing idealisation might occur as, for example, when I go to a new job with totally unreal expectations of how wonderful life will be when I am in that job or when I move to the "dream home" or retire or fall in love. We are probably going to experience this kind of passing idealisation a number of times during our lives – especially when we are young. Happy are those who are disappointed by life and do not become cynical or resentful! Chronic or ongoing idealisation might occur when I, for example, experience my childhood as more or less distressing. Thus I may become "the dutiful daughter" or "the dependable son" or "the peacemaker" and so on. I may then move into adulthood without being aware that I am relating with the world on the basis of this idealisation.
Idealisation is a deceit – even if we are not morally culpable and even if it contains some substance of truth – and when the pretence is finally laid bare, the victims of that deceit will typically be disappointed, perhaps very angry and may even turn in hatred on the source of the deceit. When an individual is coming to terms with self-idealisation, he or she must contend with a certain amount of self-hatred.
We idealise because we are anxious and because we yearn to be something "better" or at least "more than" we are or perceive ourselves to be. Put more simply: We idealise because we are frightened to admit the truth. We cannot stand being just "this" or "that". The Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, summed it up in his own enigmatic way: "… but the self that did not become Caesar is the thing that is intolerable." Thomas Merton put it more bluntly:
"Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the person I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about that person. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one that wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love – outside of reality and outside of life."
Cultures have their idealisations too. How could we ever forget the idealisation of President Kennedy and his beautiful wife, Jacqueline or, more recently, Princess Diana, "The Queen of Hearts". In each instance the culture held exalted pre-definitions of these people. We tried so hard to make the idealised image replace the reality. Eventually, however, the reality broke through. In Australia various idealisations have been evident, for example, in relation to lifesavers, the "Aussie male", sports men and women, the early settlers, the outback, Great Britain and British ways, Ireland and Irish ways, and so on.
Affronts to reality – no matter how inevitable or predictable or apparently benign – exact a price. Neither individuals nor cultures can live a pretence for long – especially if that pretence is about something significant. As Dostoievsky observed: Put nature out the window and it will come in the door.
Christians find themselves contending with idealisations just as all other human beings do. Another name for idealisation is idolisation. It is not surprising that so much should have been said to condemn idol worship in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, there is ample evidence that Jesus was also very alert to this process. For example, he condemned the Pharisees for idealising the Law. The Pharisees, in developing an exalted and fixed pre-definition of the Law and its place in Judaism, had forgotten the whole point of the Law. They had fallen into the quagmire of unreality that idealisation always leads to – the means replace the ends, the relative is absolutised, the finite takes on infinite characteristics, the man-made insidiously becomes "the divinely constituted". This is how idols are made by us. And this is roundly condemned time and again in both the Old and New Testaments.
The hierarchy, clergy and religious have tended to be idealised within our Catholic history. An idealised image of these people, buttressed by a well-established Catholic sub-culture, had an immense influence on the thinking of Catholics. In many instances the wonderful humanity of those people broke through the idealisations and did great work for the Kingdom. Sometimes, however, the idealisation did immense harm, dislocating men and women from the truth of their humanity and manifesting itself in authoritarianism, dogmatism, chronic anger, sexual conflicts and even psychopathologies.
We can accept the infallibility invested in the successor of Peter and still acknowledge the idealisations that Catholics have attached – and have been encouraged to attach – to that office. Similarly, we can acknowledge the exalted pre-definitions we have attached to the form of church we brought into the middle of the twentieth century. In both instances it is as difficult as it is necessary to sort out the truth from the pretence, the real from the unreal, what is essential to the Gospel Tradition and what is accidental or even an obstacle to that Gospel Tradition.
We can understand the work of renewal within the Church as parallel to the work of renewal we must all pursue in our personal lives – it is a movement from the false towards the true, from the unreal towards the real. This requires constant vigilance and persistent effort. Ultimately this is a work of grace though. We are all subject to anxiety, all yearning to be "more than" we are and all such gifted self-deceivers, that idealisation is an ever-present possibility, one that we can never conquer by human effort alone. Only much effort from us and much grace from God can keep us pointing in the right direction!
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
Give your own definition of idealisation.
Can you recall a time when you idealised someone or something?
How did you become aware that you were in fact idealising?
On the basis of your experience, what do you see as the damaging effects of idealisation?
Do you think there might be some demonisation – as a reaction to idealisation – in the Church today?
What might Kierkegaard mean by his statement quoted in paragraph 5 above?
Reflect on the quotation from Thomas Merton, drawing on your own experience.
Can you give an example of specifically Catholic idealisation? Reflect.
Can you recall any occasion in the Gospel when Jesus condemned idealisation?
Can you recall anything from the Gospels that might help you resist idealisations?