Reawakening Idealism/Not Becoming ‘Comfortably Numb’

‘When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
And I have become
Comfortably numb.’

The song, ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd ends with the lines above. Here, the artist sings about how, during his childhood, he caught a glimpse of something better than the life he currently lives.  Due to his life experiences, he has become cynical, disillusioned and in the end, ‘comfortably numb’.  It is obvious from this song that this ‘comfortably numb’ feeling is not a peaceful feeling of contentment but a feeling of bitter resignation. This feeling captures much of what has happened to people or is happening to young people, in our society today. Many of these people had or have a burning desire to live life to its fullest, i.e. they ‘caught a fleeting glimpse’ of the potential in life, but due to bitter life experiences they have become or are becoming disillusioned and fed up with talk about goodness, truth or high ideals, i.e. ‘the dream is gone’. So how do we maintain or reawaken this idealism of youth so that we can catch a glimpse of the true reality of life?

Re-inspiring Idealism in People’s Hearts

When people have become ‘comfortably numb’, something special needs to happen to shake them out of this.  This shaking can sometimes come in the form of pleasurable life events, e.g. falling in love, landing the job they always wanted, travelling to new and exotic places.  These events can awaken in people that inner idealistic teenager as one’s eyes are briefly opened to the beauty in life and hope emerges once again.  However, as these feelings are often transitory, e.g. the initial crush fades, married life becomes difficult, the new job gets tiresome, travelling becomes burdensome, this awakening is not sustained and often people end up back in their ‘comfortably numb’ state.  There can follow an increased cynicism as the person notes that the very thing that promised the fulfilment of happiness, i.e. the husband or wife, the new job, the exotic holiday, does not live up to the expectation and fails to satisfy the inner craving for happiness.  They all fall short of what one expected or hoped for. Martin Mosebach (‘The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy‘) also points out the various other avenues idealists go down on their quests for happiness, but which eventually lead to unhappiness and disillusionment, ‘Vegetarianism, cult of nudity, feminism, neo-paganism, pseudo-Indian meditation, gay liberation, ubiquitous guitar-strumming.  Basically, all these movements can be traced back to the burning idealism of good people who were led astray and betrayed.’ With so many disappointments and so many people and things falling short of the mark, cynicism about the possibility of a happy and joyous life and the feeling that you have been betrayed can seem like reasonable responses. Now, this reaction is not all bad. While indifferentism sometimes creeps in with setbacks and disappointments, cynicism can be a more positive reaction as it shows some sign that the person may, at least, still care, as Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, points out in his insightful book, ‘The Spirit of the Legion of Mary‘, ‘When you find people cynical do not be over-hasty to condemn them.  Rather reason out the ‘Why’.  The answer to that ‘Why’ may form a condemnation of ourselves.  For cynicism is not altogether an unworthy product. In its essence it is disgust, despair, disillusionment.  Any idealist who is disappointed may become a cynic, but the idealism has not been destroyed. It is merely submerged. It can be brought to light again.’  This disappointed idealist ‘cannot put [his] finger on’ why he has become so cynical but Frank Duff realised that, with a little patience and guidance, the light, i.e. the ‘why’, could emerge from the darkness.  So how can this idealism, i.e. this striving and longing for something better, ‘be brought to light again’ and maintained? 

Presentation of The Truth

‘Many are the misguided men who in their revolt against the Christian ideal of human character and the Christian rule of life, are not in revolt against that ideal itself, but what they conceive it to be.  It is not to say how far Christian themselves are responsible for this state of affairs.  Not only inadequacy in the practice of Christianity, but also a faulty presentation of its values, is apt to rouse antagonism in the sincere and the reflective.  The Christian theory of life is so coherent, so logical, so simple yet so mysterious, so accommodated to the average man as well as to the most highly gifted, and finally so soul-satisfying that, when adequately presented it must readily recommend itself to all men of sincerity and good will.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘Why the Cross?

If the truth is to re-ignite the slumbering idealists, it must be presented clearly and convincingly.  It must not be watered down to appeal to the masses. It must be presented in a way that inspires and lifts as Frank Duff outlines, ‘It would be a tragic thing if, in any place, the actions of its members toned down the Church to such an extent that men looking at it could discern nothing of the characteristics of Christ; nothing virile, appealing, inspiring, conquering, grand; nothing but a slave of its environment, something that has made terms with the world.’  Those who don’t compromise, who speak clearly and precisely, and who don’t filter their message to appeal to modern or worldly eyes and ears will often be seen as naïve ‘idealists’ or mad men by the world.  However, these speakers of unfiltered truth need to remember that many great people, such as St John Bosco, were labelled ‘idealists’ who never gave up, ‘Many hoary sinners were won by that lovable and persistent kindness, by that understanding of human weakness and belief that in the most unpromising characters there was always, somewhere, a vein of good.’ (F.A. Forbes, ‘St John Bosco, Seeker of Souls’). 

Those who speak the truth must also remember the call from Christ to perfection as Fr Edward Leen points out, ‘Jesus was a lofty idealist as regards the destiny towards which He directed the aspirations of His fellows. His ambitions for them knew no limits short of the divine.  He would make them sons of God and co-heirs with Himself (Rom 8:17).  Being a lofty idealist, He was at the same time, as is usually the case, an intense realist…The obstacles that impede the soul’s vision of the Divine Beauty are the real source of human misery, for they are the one bar to human contentment.  The clearing away of these obstacles involves toil and hardship and pain, but this pain prepares the way for peace and joy and contentment.’  This idealism is based on reality. It is not sugar coated and the reality of the battle ahead is clearly outlined.  This intense realism is what appeals to the highest aspirations of the human soul as Fr Doolan (‘Philosophy for the Layman‘) outlines, ‘There is a spiritual craving and energy in humanity as such, from which springs ‘longings, strivings, yearnings’ for things far beyond the experience of the senses or the desires of sensuality.  These strivings denote a certain idealism.  It is expressed in the art of human life itself, but most notably in our poetry and painting and music and soaring architecture.  Things like truth and goodness and beauty, and glory and fame, do mean something to men, and give rise to high aspirings.’  This appealing to the highest aspirations of man is also essential for the youth as Brother Willibald Demal (‘Pastoral Psychology in Practice’) notes, ‘Pure love must be the ideal of the youth’ and  ‘The urge to honour and self-esteem awakens in the youth his fighting spirit, his urge to heroism; while his love impulses awaken his enthusiasm for everything noble, beautiful, and good, i.e. awakens his idealism.’ The youth need a challenge and one that will require the best of themselves. The words of Frank Duff speaking to his legionnaires, also appeal to those who desire a noble quest to take on, ‘You must outlive the world, outpace it, outlast it, outlove it, in everything – in science, in art, in business, in sport, in achievement of every kind.’  

Who is Appealing to Our Idealism Today?

The Catholic Faith, due to how it is presented to the world today, has lost many idealists to other causes that speak to them more convincingly and appeal more strongly to the noblest of their aspirations.  Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens (once referred to as ‘The Four Horsemen’) appealed to young idealists due to their conviction and eloquence, while also inspiring in idealists the belief that they were part of a noble battle against falsehoods and error.  The truth, i.e. the Catholic Faith, has failed to convince people, mainly because these people, usually the young, were not presented with the Faith clearly and/or it was presented to them by unholy pragmatists who tried to have two masters, rather than saintly idealists, such as St John Bosco, who knew, loved and served only one Master.  St John Bosco represented, in his words and deeds, more than ‘a fleeting glimpse’ of the Catholic Faith thus helping to prevent many souls becoming ‘comfortably numb’.

So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.‘ (Matthew 5:16)

To prevent cynicism, to awaken idealism in cynics, and to sustain this awakening, there is only one ultimate solution. It is the presentation of the Truth in all its glory and splendour. This is what must happen in our world today.  It will take humility, hard graft and study, sacrifice, plain speaking and most importantly, a display of true Christian charity, if people are to awaken in others a love of Truth Himself and a fervent hope that combats despair and disillusionment. Charity, radiating in and out from a saintly soul, has a deep impact on the one it is shines on, as Abbot Jean-Baptiste Chautard outlines in his inspiring book, ‘Soul of the Apostolate’, ‘The sinner has caught a glimpse of another kind of love, one that is pure, ardent, and noble, and he has said to himself: ‘So it is possible, after all, to love, on this earth, with a love that transcends the love of creatures!’.  The sinner has put his finger on the source of Love itself, the dream or yearning of the soul turns out to him to be a reality, and instead of becoming comfortably numb the inspired soul strives towards Christian perfection.  This is the best way to combat disillusionment and despair. Hopefully, young idealists and those cynics who were former idealists will then realise, like Chesterton, that ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’ 

So, let us not settle for being ‘comfortably numb’. Let us aspire to more. Let us take a closer look at the fleeting glimpses of goodness that we saw in the Catholic Faith and those that truly practiced it. Let us examine and consider the pure love we saw ‘out of the corner of [our eyes]’. Then, let us willingly take up our cross, understand the battle ahead of us, keep our eyes focused on Heaven, and let us realise that the truth is far sweeter and more liberating than any dream.    

God bless you in your efforts.