“An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.” ― H.L. Mencken
Have you ever noticed that we have a tendency to idealize that which charms us? Because we like the appearance of a product, we might conclude that it’s more functional. If we fall in love with a house we see, we imagine that we’d live a happier life there. When we see actors we admire, we sometimes confuse them with the roles they are playing, forgetting that they might have real-life habits that would drive us crazy if we spent time with them.
It’s natural, of course, to be attracted to surface traits. But a car can run well without being visually appealing, and food can be nutritious and even tasty without appearing particularly appetizing. Somehow, that’s not typically enough for us; we want the whole package. We want and expect things to be perfect, connecting with all our senses in a positive way.
Advertisers know this, of course, and exploit it to devastating effect. Tapping into the power of association, they use images of beautiful people and places to sell everything from beer to deodorant to gadgets to appliances. It’s doubly risky to swallow too many of these messages. Not only can it leave us financially depleted and disappointed by having been sold on more than is actually delivered; it also can build in us an unrealistic level of expectation about pretty much everything, which renders us perpetually discontented with reality.
Next time you’re looking through a catalog or magazine, try to picture how that clothing or furniture or artwork might fit into the context of your own world. How would it look on your body, in your room or on your walls? Have you noticed the gorgeous bathroom photos rarely depict toothpaste, shaving cream, hair care items or other necessities of daily life that will inevitably cluster on our counters? Will everything stay so neatly folded and pressed as it appears in the article about household organization? Or are we buying an illusion?
We come close to perfection surprisingly often in our everyday lives, even if only in a splendid meal now and then, or a well-brewed cup of coffee or tea. As long as we don’t expect that level of delight to generalize to the rest our day, we can treasure such moments as ornaments alongside more mundane experiences. We can enjoy the cabbage soup (or, OK, the tomato basil soup) without expecting it to be as beautiful as a perfect rose, or expecting the rose to give us more than the sheer joy of its fragrance and loveliness.
How can we keep a realistic level of expectation, yet still strive to add joy and beauty to our lives? How can we experience idealism as an asset rather than a liability?