Have you ever heard of the word ideal? Of course you have. But have you ever thought about what it means? Scholars across the world (and salesmen, for that matter) have tried to define what ideal is.
Is it perfect? Is it attainable? Is it even real? Can human beings even understand the ideal?
Everyone from Socrates to Aristotle to Plato to Immanuel Kant to Kanye West to Billy Mays have claimed their position in the conversation of the ideal.
I’m not putting myself on the same level as Socrates or Kant, but I do think I’m allowed to say the following sentence: I believe I’ve done a decent job of defining what ideal means, but not necessarily what ideal is.
My definition of ideal is simple.
Ideal is the idea of the perfect.
You have an idea of the perfect date. You have an idea of the perfect meal. You have an idea of the perfect outing, the perfect race, the perfect game, the perfect dress, the perfect dog, the perfect mate, the perfect shoes, the perfect snack, the perfect revenge, the perfect blessing, the perfect song, the perfect smell, the perfect chair, the perfect weekend, the perfect vacation, the perfect truck, the perfect shirt, the perfect decorations, the perfect deal, the perfect argument…and so forth and so on.
It’s an idea. But have you ever seen it? A professor of mine, Dr. James Potts, said that he doesn’t allow undergraduate students to use the word is. They’re allowed to tell him what things do, but not what they are. He said he refuses to give a 19-year-old kid the divine power to name things. I kind of like that.
The Romantic In Me Has Been Strangled
Most of the narratives we enjoy involve the ideal. When the character goes “all the way,” we eat it up.
If Romeo didn’t kill himself when he thought Juliet was dead, we would think he was selfish. If Juliet didn’t kill herself after Romeo, we would have thought she was selfish.
Old Rose dropping that dad-gummed diamond necklace back in the ocean when she recalled her time with Jack on the Titanic is a dramatic way to reminisce about her stint on the lower decks. And we all know there was enough room on that piece of wood. Selfish tart.
Guinevere falling in love with Arthur and then cheating on him with Lancelot is the boom that story requires to make it interesting. The perfect love ushers in the perfect betrayal.
Speaking of Camelot, let’s shift to nonfiction: The Kennedys. What would have happened if Jack would have lived? What about if Bobby would have lived?
OOH! I have an ideal!
There’s a poem by Wislawa Szymborska called “Family Album.” (This is where you go read it so you can understand where I’m coming from. Go. I’ll wait).
(Seriously. Go read it. It’s not long. Plus, you get to upgrade your snob-appeal.)
Here comes the comparison—the not-so-snobby comparison. I hear Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” when I read this poem. The simple life is the greatest life.
In our dramatic, romantic stories, the heroes die for their maidens, and the reader gets all wrapped up in the sentimentality of the event. The emotionalism and romance is enthralling. Rose promises she’ll never let go, but we all know she will. If the hero dies, the fair maiden becomes someone else’s maiden-fair. All the hero becomes is a memory.
Szymborska’s poem praises the mundane, the planned, the unromantic, and it gives a clear example of what it claims to be ideal. To Symborska, the mess is the ideal.
Cleanliness is Next To Godliness? Nah
Some people can’t live in the mess. I’m not talking about living dirty. That’s living in a mess. I can’t take nasty. Clean up a bit, man.
What I’m talking about is the mess. Like the old cliche says, if you’re gonna make some omelets, you have to break some eggs. To truly live life, there’s going to be some messes, some scratches, maybe even some scarring. But they all have their own stories.
I have a scratch on the tailgate of my truck. I almost wish it wasn’t there, but it has a story. It’s not a good story, but it’s a story. When we bought the house we’re living in, there was no landscaping. We put countless hours and gallons of sweat into planting and cultivating and digging and weeding (and more weeding). I scratched the tailgate taking a shepherd’s hood out of the bed. Not a good story, but it reminds me that I’ve made a positive impact in my surroundings.
My wife says I make too many messes, but I like to think those messes are merely unfinished projects. I like to think I live life so much to the fullest that I just don’t have time to clean. She reminds me of the truth when I get that look.
Live in the Mess
I think about famous story lines like James Dean when I read that poem. He’s forever the beautiful 34-year-old who has perfect hair and drives cool cars. I also think about Paul Newman. He’s the counter part. He was also a beautiful 34-year-old with perfect hair and cool cars. But he became the old man who had a food line (Can’t go wrong with Newman’s Own Coffee).
James Dean lived fast and died messy. Paul Newman outgrew youth and lived in the mess. I like the mess. My world is smack-dab in the middle of the mess. We have countless responsibilities and projects going on. I fail here and there, but I learn from my failures. Some failures are expensive, and some are embarrassing, but they all have value.
A recent mess was made in the gym at school. One of our basketball players is quite tall and has an awesome dunk. When you have an awesome dunk, you just can’t help but send it on home. The mess was quite large, but he’ll always have that story.
And the messes inside the mess? Those are proof that you’re actually living life. Some people have perfect furniture that will never get dirty. Some floors will never get dirt on them. There’s carpet that’s never had a muddy footprint on it. There are cars that will never have accidental key marks around the lock or will never have that allusive french fry under the driver’s seat.
Those look nice, and have great resale value, but those live in a “for display only” world. They’re constantly chaperoned by a “please do not touch” sign. They’re neat. They’re perfect. They’re ideal.
The messes are not ideal.
They’re all works in progress.
They’re all developmental.
The ideal is static. The mess is dynamic.
I’d rather have the mess.