Actual and ideal

“How often we find ourselves turning our backs on our actual friends, that we may go and meet their ideal cousin.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Kirsetin Morello is leading a fascinating project on her blog.  Every Monday she posts words that intrigue her, move her, interest her.  On Wednesday she shares her reflections on those words and invites others to do the same.  These words from Thoreau, which I had never read before, are this week’s featured quote.

Thoreau’s words remind of the adage that the perfect is the enemy of the good.  They also remind me something I’ve said before, which is that for many of us the central task of adulthood is letting go of what we thought our lives would be like.  We compare what is to what we wanted, or imagined, and very often reality falls short of those dreams.  And so we fall, over and over again, into the perilous lacuna between the vision and the truth.

It’s only after we are sufficiently bruised from these falls that we stand up, brush ourselves off, and realize: no more comparing.  Instead we vow to turn our gaze to what is here, now, and to embrace that for what it is.

Of course this is true, too, for friends.  While I think Thoreau’s point has broad resonance beyond actual friendships, it is relevant with respect to those we love, also.  Many years ago I realized, for example, that I’d have only a handful of truly intimate friends, native speakers who I felt understood everything about me.  I mourned this truth for a little while, not because I wanted more of these friends of the heart but because mine were not local, and I ached for them.  But then, in an adjunct realization, I allowed myself to understand that there were great benefits to friends who were not connecting with every single dimension of me every single minute.  There were, once I let myself enjoy them, great joys to be had with friends who were fabulously fun to drink wine with, or fascinating to talk about books with, or partners-in-mothering with whom I could share the nitty gritty details of my son’s latest tantrum.  And so what if it wasn’t a single person spanning all of those realms?  That was okay.

Let’s not turn our backs on our friends, or on our lives, because what is ideal is not real, and the holding one up to the other results in nothing but anguish.  Instead, may we learn to lean into those friends and that truth that is right here, now, imperfect and wonderful all at once.


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  1. Anne
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful post! Great words to start the day with. Thanks.

  2. Posted March 14, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    So well said and so hard to do. I am guilty of the ideal to real comparison. I let go of some dreams early on and have wondered ever since…what if? With friends and family too it’s easy to fall into this trap of comparing your real relationship to the unreal ideal one you may wish you had. But you are so right, all we succeed in is missing what is right here, right now, and all the wonderfulness that can hold if we are willing to open up and see it for what it is.

  3. Posted March 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Thank you – I needed to hear this.

    As I get older I am finding that my good friends are so special. When I was in my 20’s I thought I would keep getting more and more good friends but now I know that isn’t the case. So I think we have to realize how great our great friends are and appreciate those we see in whatever the capacity they show up. I am still working on this!!

  4. Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    I’d forgotten that quote, about “the perfect being the enemy of the good.” I hope you don’t mind that I’m stealing it for my next Edible Santa Fe blog post! That could have been my mantra for the first part of my life. I’m a reforming perfectionist, but I still struggle mightily.

  5. Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Oh my gosh! I posted something almost exactly like this quite recently, about wanting my “soul mate” friends to be more plentiful, or more local, and balking when it’s suggested that I find more casual friends…


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