From the words of poets throughout the ages to Zadie Smith’s latest novel, On Beauty, to novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco’s comments, beauty gets a lot of ink. “Beauty is a mess, a sinkhole, a trap,” says Eco. “Approach it philosophically, and you risk getting bogged down in questions of idealism, empiricism, subjectivity, and objectivity. Plato began the conversation, Kant tried to finish it. Take a cultural run at it, and you’re stumbling over issues of relativism, where nothing is either beautiful or ugly but time, class, nation, or ethnicity makes it so.”
These issues of relativism, of arbitrary ideals and standards, become so real and unquestioned, they become powerful yet mostly invisible determinants that shape our lives.
We traffic daily in concepts like beauty, success, generosity, intelligence—they hold a place in every peer group, every community, every culture around the world. They exist as ideals, expectations, and standards. While their specific expressions and definitions vary from place to place, situation to situation—in one country beautiful means Rubenesque, in another, wafer thin—we all strive for ideals. They are the measures we use every day—to see where we stand, how we fit in, how we stack up.
Ideals have enormous practical value. They can be powerful catalysts motivating us to open new frontiers, excel in sports, establish such principles as justice and democracy, or set benchmarks for educational, medical, and technological progress. They permeate every aspect of our lives. Ideals can awaken passion and an urgency that calls forth excellence, persistence, and going beyond our perceived limits, allowing for something new and surprising to emerge.
There is also a downside. One that is subtle, grows, and over time can take hold.
The dictionary defines “ideal” as being a model or archetype, something thought of as perfect, or exactly as one would wish. When we are driven by the ideal, we almost by definition fall short. Holding on to an ideal, while spurring us on, can also keep us from seeing what else is possible. We can’t imagine what we might create or do because we are held captive by the particular ideal we hold in our minds.
An ideal can become a “failed possibility”—a possibility that wasn’t achieved, but one that stays around as something that is not possible, now or perhaps ever. A failed possibility is something like when we make up our minds to handle something in a particular way and we don’t—for example, we mean to be compassionate, but we find ourselves judging; we want to speak up, go for the promotion, make our contribution, but find ourselves not taking action.
When that happens we see ourselves as having failed in some way. It’s not just that a thing failed, but that we failed. To the degree that the characteristics or properties with which we identify ourselves are ideals—beautiful, magnanimous, successful, whatever—we decide we don’t have what it takes, and who we are becomes diminished.
Now, throw into the mix “expectations.” Expectations can be considered a possibility that we’ve destroyed as a possibility, because we counted on it. If, for example, we really study and think we’re going to get a high grade on an exam, or we train hard to make the cut for a sports team, but it doesn’t pan out—what lived for us as a possibility, but failed, can leave us questioning ourselves, and the stuff of which we are made. We then try to go out and create a new possibility, but against a backdrop that negates it. We stop trusting the possibilities we create, we turn down the dials, adjust and accommodate—we settle for less. Possibilities devolve into ideals, and ideals begin to masquerade as possibility. We lose our power.
How we relate to our setbacks and circumstances has everything to do with what’s possible. Responses like “it’s not my fault,” “I didn’t invent the rules,” or “it just happened that way” might seem legitimate but leave us paying a price—the price is a loss of power. Responsibility—acknowledging our cause in the matter, seeing where we have been inauthentic, taking whatever actions we need to take, and telling the truth about it—is key to restoring and having power.
It’s not that the ideal or expectation is bad, by any means, it’s collapsing the two and relating to them in the same way that power is lost. As shown in the diagram, an expectation or ideal unfulfilled leads to a lack of power, where a possibility unfulfilled still leads to a possibility—and no loss of power or freedom.
Access to restoring our power is in language. When we’re clear that we’ve got something to say about who we are, we can separate out our interpretation from the circumstance—the disparity between something that happened, and the possibility of who we are. What we say to ourselves and about ourselves, silently and out loud, once or a million times, shapes our possibilities for being. Our ideals, standards, and expectations occur in language. Our
reluctance, accommodation, and powerlessness occur in language. But language is also the home—the only home—of possibility. What determines whether possibility (a creative act) or failed possibility (an ideal masquerading as possibility) will carry the day is up to each of us. The choice is ours.