Idealism October 16, 2020

My north side friend is a tireless proponent of social improvement. Year after year he gathers people around the pressing issue of the moment. He gives lots of talks on the necessity of social change and on effective strategies for advancing justice. And so it was that he was invited to a university classroom in Wisconsin.

My friend’s presentation was formulaic for about 30 minutes. Then he used this example: “Any three of you students, let’s say, could join a parish. After a week or two you could take over a committee and within a short time you would be running that parish.” Blank stares greeted this example until one student replied, “Why would we want to do anything like that?” My friend realized in that moment that his presentation was a bust.

Young adults have a healthy ambivalence about institutions. Why not? Many workplaces, even those that advertise “creative opportunities,” are dull. Decisions are made arbitrarily by a boss who is obviously incapable of 21st century leadership. Those in human service occupations spend most of each day on data entry. Social change organizations are often bureaucracies in which the primary activity is fund raising. And a local parish—to use my friend’s example—is part of an international organization that allowed child abuse.

Idealistic young adults suffer this ambivalence acutely. So, consider St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the most idealistic Christian ever. He broke away from everything associated with the emerging mercantile economy—from his father and his apparel business, from any sort of regular job, from stable lodging and decidedly from money. But what did he do? In lifestyle and in numerous gestures, St. Francis strongly critiqued the status quo, but he never renounced Catholicism–not in the slightest. He never adopted the life of a solitary hermit, avoiding society and interactions. At the other extreme he never joined a monastery. That would have been a sell out to bureaucracy and petty corruption—the very things that displeased St. Francis Instead, he stayed on the outer edge of institutions, forming a fraternity.

Young adults—first one and two, then a hundred and more—saw and heard St. Francis. They wanted to join with him. St. Francis immediately knew that his idealistic group would take on the trappings of a business with rules and hierarchy and many departures from the counter-culture he envisioned. In one incident after another his community of friars caused him disappointment and real suffering. Yet, St. Francis wanted his vision to spread and continue. That would never happen if he suddenly abandoned the scene. He needed an audience, a fellowship, an institution.

An idealistic young adult today might gradually submit to the daily grind. Of course, the rent has to be paid; groceries are a necessity; health insurance is expensive. But submission is dangerous. Soon enough the sparks of joy are overcome by acedia. An idealistic young adult might modify this strategy by following social movements on Facebook or Twitter. She or he might donate money now and then or even participate in a one-shot rally. But such political hobbyism is not too effective and soon enough becomes a low priority.

An idealistic young adult, especially in these times, needs fellowship. It is nearly impossible to make sense of the spiritual life—a life of joy and grandeur—without friends. Oh sure, as was the case with St. Francis, the small group is imperfect. Some members are undependable while others are domineering. Too little structure reduces the idealistic group to a regular group of drinking buddies—something, by the way, which is also wholesome.  At the other extreme, too much structure creates a bureaucracy that smothers the original ideals.

My north side friend will continue his passion for social change. If he is again invited to be with college students, the parish example is outside their experience. The presumption is that idealistic students have not forsaken their school. They see it as an important institution. And yet because they are idealistic, these students have not surrendered to the numbing routine of college.

My friend can use better examples. Start with Our Streets, a student-led effort to assist Black students on campus. That effort can also take on the recruiting process and admission policies of the college. Or start with Students Against Sweatshops, a national network that has broken down the huge topic of globalization by getting college bookstores to sell only sweatshop-free apparel. Or start with an environmental club that lobbies the trustees to invest in green companies and to install solar panels on campus. Or start with those students who have a living wage committee that advocates for the service workers on campus.

In other words, young adults are already confronting the madness of our day and nurturing joy amid all the resentment and cynicism in our culture. The first step in keeping the idealism is a small group of like-minded young adults. Not easy to create. Not easy to sustain.

Droel is the author of Public Friendship (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

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