It is a clear, crisp Sunday morning in Ngaba, Tibet-the same type of morning that makes a man brew a cup of coffee and reflect on the beauty of the Earth for hours. For one man, a young Tibetan named Nangdrol, it will be the last morning he will ever enjoy. In just a few short minutes, the young Tibetan will set himself on fire in protest of decades of Chinese imperialism. He does not commit suicide because he is depressed, or poor, or physically hurting. He sears his flesh because he is an idealist. To him the world should be a bastion of justice and equality and he will give his life to make this known. Now while I personally do not advocate this type of extreme idealism, his actions reflect a belief in the greater cause of humanity and they do make one think: if everyone embodied only a fraction of this man’s positive idealism, and of course were not inclined to physical harm, the world would be a much more pleasant place to call home.
In the early 20th century the quintessential southern writer Flannery O’Connor entitled a short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Had she written the same story during the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps a better title would have been “An Idealist Is Hard To Find.” In today’s increasingly globalized era – an age dominated by corporate greed, rampant poverty, and socio-economic disparities-truly idealistic people are about as common as straight-laced politicians. If the world population could be analyzed in terms of the NCAA basketball tournament, idealistic people would congregate in the 16th seed position. They are few and far between. And like the “good men” in O’Connor’s short story, they are becoming increasingly hard to find. Yet civilization was built upon the ingenuity of idealistic individuals. Idealistic leaders crafted the U.S. Constitution, championed for the rights of all peoples, and dared to step on the moon. They dreamed and pondered “what if.” And then, in the 21st century, the “what if’s” became the “probably not’s” and the flame of idealism began to flicker. What ever happened to such a hopeful people? The answer is cynicism. As a once professed “professional cynic,” I understand the temptations of cynicism. Life is hard and cynicism offers a way for man to rationalize an increasingly entropic existence. It is a crutch, an opioid used to dull the pain of a life of constant suffering. Yet what would a world without pervasive pessimism look like? At City Year, I believe that I am a part of a microcosm of that world.
When I first came to City Year, I was convinced that I was a part of the last congregation of idealists on the planet. I saw my fellow corps members as rogues: optimistic operatives pitted against the vast pessimistic war machine. And although I am not by an idealist by nature, I decided to tuck away my cynical attitudes and join the ranks. I later realized that this transition from a bleak world perspective to a somewhat brighter mental outlook was just what I needed. During the past six months, I have heard the word “idealism” so many times that I now mumble it in my sleep. It’s weird to think about half a year in, but up until now, I never gave it much thought. Growing up, idealism was a “five dollar word”- one of those empty words used by politicians to quell riots and calm the masses. Yet now it has never made more sense. A new-found sense of idealism has given me a reason to wake up in the morning and persevere throughout the day in a classroom largely devoid of idealism. It has given me the belief that my service is helping to make the world a better place. It is what fuels the 99% to rise from their meager encampments to challenge the status quo. It is what thickens the skin of Tibetan monks as they set their skin ablaze in protest of tyranny. It is what topples authoritarian regimes and supplants democracy. It is what inspires a new generation of immigrants to look at America and say “why not?” In its purest form, idealism is an amalgamation of power and love.
My time at City Year has allowed me to see the impact positive idealistic thinking has on the community. And once my City Year is done, I hope to continue to believe in the power of idealism. Will it happen? I honestly can’t say at this point. A lifetime is full of perspective-altering experiences. This is what makes living worthwhile. Yet even if I am not 100% confident that idealism will be in my future, I will do my best to make sure it is in my cross-hairs. From City Year, I have learned that to be an idealist, you must arise every morning with a sense of purpose, a belief that you are a member of a community, and a conviction that your life is no more precious then anyone else’s. You must embody the spirit of giving, while shunning the idylls of materialism. You must kick dirt in the face of oppression and wipe clean the brow of sacrifice. To be an idealist you must embody the tenets of humanism. The world is tough, don’t make it tougher with negativity- make it shine like a supernova with love. And read, reread, and read some more….knowledge is power. Learn another language. Become a citizen of the world. Pay for a strangers lunch. And listen. No one listens enough. And then when the day begins anew for you as it will for the rest of your days, SERVE. Once you devote your time to service, a few good men won’t be that hard to find.
-Josh Martin, Corps Member serving at Bakersville Elementary School