Jay and Lauren

Idealism. It’s a good thing. We all need some. Whether about ourselves or our world, it’s a necessary part of our society. But is all idealism good, or can it be frustrating, even dangerous, if it’s unrelated to reality.

This is the story of two people who  put their idealism to the test, and how it turned out, both the good and the bad.

Mentioned links:

‘Blog’ trend provides virtual soapbox [article featuring my idealism]

Millennial Couple Bikes Near ISIS Territory Thinking ‘Humans Are Kind’ and Gets Killed

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Show transcript

Idealism. It’s a good thing. We all need some. Whether about ourselves or our world, it’s a necessary part of our society.

Take for example the racism of the early 20th century. It took idealists like Martin Luther King to have a dream about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. In 2018, after the administration of the nation’s first black President, we have come a long way and are certainly closer to that dream. We’re not entirely there, but having that idealism has given us a goal to shoot for, and progress toward it has certainly been made.

This also applies to personal ideals. I’ll use myself as the example. I’ve been an opinionated guy writing opinion pieces since my college days. When blogging became a thing, I was something of an early adopter. In fact, totally by chance, a journalist got in contact with me, and I got quoted in an article about the new trend of blogging in a UPI wire story from 2003. At the time, I said I wouldn’t mind having a little influence. As time passed, and I got writing more regularly, I hoped I was getting closer to that ideal. When streaming audio came on the scene, I did a little of that, and then with podcasting, listening to other podcasts got me wanting to do my own. And now, between 400 and 500 people are out there listening to what I have to say, a lot more than ever read my blog. But I had an ideal, a meager one no doubt, but something to shoot for. More importantly, it was something I thought could actually happen because others had done it. It was based in reality.

And that’s something I want to highlight regarding the story I’m going to cover here. Ideals are good, but if they’re not grounded in reality, those ideals will be frustrating for being forever out of reach, or in some cases, the consequences can be much worse.

This brings me to the story of 29-year-olds Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan. Both worked in Washington, DC, Jay in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Lauren, in the Georgetown University admissions office. To them, the work had become a grind. Jay wrote on his blog, “I’ve grown tired of spending the best hours of my day in front of a glowing rectangle, of coloring the best years of my life in swaths of grey and beige. I’ve missed too many sunsets while my back was turned. Too many thunderstorms went unwatched, too many gentle breezes unnoticed.” Then, he quit.

He and Lauren then embarked on an around-the-world bike trip, fueled by the idealism of living a life that appreciated the beauty that this world has to offer. And not just the beauty of nature; the beauty of interacting with their fellow human beings. On their travelogue blog, Jay wrote, “You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place…People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil…I don’t buy it…By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.”

With that mindset, that idealism about humanity, the couple was living their dream. They spent over a year biking through Africa, into southern Europe, through Turkey, and all the way over to Tajikistan. This is where their idealism met with reality.

There is one more element to Jay’s philosophy that I didn’t include earlier, and I need to bring it up now. He had a very idealistic view of humanity, such that I think part of it was at odds with reality. After noting that the media tells you that people are evil, he said this (and I’m going to put it in the context of the previous quotes), “Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own—it’s easier to dismiss an opinion as abhorrent than strive to understand it. Badness exists, sure, but even that’s quite rare. By and large, humans are kind.”

The problem with that idea is that there is so much evidence throughout human history to the contrary. Jay might point to all the hospitality he received for over a year as evidence of the good in people. I would agree with him. Humans are capable of simple acts of hospitality, and even of great acts of good. But all the people he met also do various like lie or cheat or steal. Regardless of how often they might do that, is the act of lying evil or not? You can cheat people whose beliefs and perspectives line up perfectly with your own. Or is that just the rare “badness” he referred to?

I brought up this same topic back in October after the Las Vegas shooting. Was the man who did that evil, or, since we don’t know his perspective, can we not put that label on him?

Was 9/11 not evil? Jay Austin might say that the terrorists wrongly considered us evil because we held different beliefs, but what about the act itself? Wasn’t that evil? I believe that what he was getting at is that he thought that humanity was not innately evil, and that the “badness” you saw was rare. But as I asked after Las Vegas, why is “badness” so easy to learn, and why there are so many teachers? Not just the major acts of “badness”, but even the everyday ones?

And on July 29th, while Jay and Lauren were biking with two other riders – one from Switzerland and one from the Netherlands – through Tajikistan, why did a car run them down and members of ISIS get out and stab all 4 of them to death? Was that evil?

I absolutely do not want to seem like I’m minimizing all the acts of kindness that they experienced, and that we experience every day. They are important, and in many cases are the result of some sort of religious influence in the culture no matter where you go. But if good comes easier to us as humans, then evil like those 4 deaths should take a Herculean effort. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. History bears this out. Humans are capable of great good, but also of great evil, and that evil cannot be self-willed out. That philosophy has been tried for thousands of years and has failed. It takes a change of the heart, the human nature, to really make headway there. But first, you have to acknowledge the reality. As they say, the first step to solving a problem is to admit that there is a problem. Calling it “a make-believe concept” gets us no closer so solving it.

Personally, I believe there is a God who wants to change our hearts and has offered to do it. He even paid our penalty for that “badness” already, so that’s not even on us anymore. We just have to accept that payment, and then accept his influence in our lives to change our nature. But even before any of that, we have to understand the need for it. And to understand that, we don’t need any holy book or a belief in a spiritual realm. We just have to take a good, hard, honest look at ourselves and humanity.

Idealism is good. Idealism unattached from reality fails us.

To bring it back to the political, having some sort of idealized view of socialism, which has never actually worked, or passing just one more law to get the money out of politics seems to be more examples of idealism removed from reality. Having a sane, solid economic theory rooted in what has worked, or removing power from government so that it’s not there to be sold, are much better ideals, if you ask me.

Filed under: Religion