Goals -- Or Ideals?

Big news! The new strategic plan for Holy Joy Church was proclaimed at Easter. Top priority: "Our goal is to love everyone as Jesus does." Projected completion date: Pentecost, 2006. At that point, after achievement of the parish's present goals, a new set will be proclaimed.

We need to be fair to the good folk at Holy Joy even if they are only imaginary. I believe that no parish would actually proclaim such a goal -- especially with such a completion date. (Although some 'strategic plans' come close.) There are, however, important things we can learn by unpacking that outlandish illustration.

Attractions and Purposes

Let's cut right to the chase: just what is a goal?

Well, the very least we can say about it is that it is something attractive. We attend to it and organize our resources around it because we want it. It isn't realized yet, it exists in our human spirits. It is drawing us into a future state of being.. We don't, after all, ordinarily use the language of 'goals' to describe the continued existence of a present state. Keeping on keeping on may sometimes be all that one can do, but it hardly qualifies as being goal-oriented. What we call goals are descriptors of new states to be achieved by purposeful activity. And it will therefore require change

It is when we begin to use the language of attractions that a very significant new clarification becomes possible. For there are different kinds of attractors, and the differences have important ramifications.

The most power-filled attractors, it turns out, are infinite in scope. Love, justice, peace, harmony, human community. An atheist may not make the same connection but these attractors are ultimately descriptions of the divine. Augustine's dictum: "our hearts were made for Thee" fits here. Corresponding to the deepest capacity and longing of the human heart there are realities which can never be reached in all their fullness while we are in our present human condition.

These realities are frequently called goals. That is because of their power to evoke a response from us. But assigning them the term 'goals' can lead to unfortunate confusion, as we shall see, so for the moment let's give them the name 'ideals.' Some authors refer to them as ultimate imperatives, and that's OK too.

It is an essential characteristic of an ultimate imperative that is finally unreachable. It stands out in front of us. It arouses the energies of hope, excitement, and even passion in us. It is perhaps best imaged as a lovely mirage on our horizon: ceaselessly calling us to set out and try to reach it, the oasis is also constantly receding from us. We may travel a long way in our efforts to reach it, only to discover that we are just as far from it as when we started out.

If we are to use the metaphor of place, ideals turn out to be Utopian: literally 'no place,' 'no where.'

Religion and Utopia

One of the characteristics of religiously oriented people is that they are compelled by a vision of the infinite. It is one of the contributions of religion to social life that the religious impulse makes us restless in the face of what appears incomplete. The drive for infinity reminds us that the world of finite goods could be better.

We need ultimate imperatives. They can keep our spirits up. And it can be salutary to lift our eyes to them from time to time, to remind ourselves that as creations of an awesome God we have infinity embedded in our finite bodies.

But the catch is that ideals, or ultimate imperatives --- as desirable and powerful as they are --- are not goals. How can that be?

Goals are something else

There are other future possibilities that can be very powerful because they are very attractive -- and they can be reached. That places them in a different realm of reality than ideals.

By contrast to an ideal a goal is concrete. It is specific, an embodied image. Where the language for ideals is abstract, the description of a goal has texture and edges. It is much easier to name our success in achieving a goal, because we were able to describe it in focused terms when we set out to get to it. To say "our goal is justice in human relationships" is a very different matter than to say "we are striving to achieve an equitable balance between the salaries of our lowest employees and that of our CEO." Both conditions are attractive, and endorsing either one still leaves much room to debate the measures that might move us toward it, but the goal is clearly of a different order from the ideal. Because the ideal is without boundaries, it is of less help in the task of focusing our human energies and saying no to other attractions which would dilute our efforts.

For in the real world of multiple attractions (what Ignatius of Loyola calls "creatures"), that is the issue, whether for an individual or a group. We need to set a focus, which holds the desired good in the center of our consciousness and thereby relegates other quite laudable goods to the realm of 'distractions.' When we have locked into a genuine goal we are better equipped to recognize that movement toward our goals requires using energies to limit the effects of other goods which lie 'outside' our mission. They don't cease to be attractive.

Movement toward a goal involves two simultaneous realities: a passion and a focus. If there is no passion, there will be no expenditure of scarce energies, and the trajectory of the past which has created our present will prevail simply by virtue of the law of inertia. On the other hand, if there is no focus, the passion of energy will be dissipated, scattered to the four winds with no discernible effect. Some goals are not reached because there isn't enough drive to get us off our present course, others because no discipline harnesses the energies which have been aroused by the attraction.

Theological reflections

Seen in this way, we are in a position to relate goal-setting to an Incarnational view of human life. It is the essence of Incarnation that it involve acceptance of limits. "Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men." (Phil 2:7-7) Jesus lived and worked in Galilee and so he couldn't travel with the high muckety-mucks in Rome or Athens. He had to achieve his purposes with followers of low estate and limited comprehension. He did not cure every hurting person that came his way. He chose not to go immediately to the sickbed of his friend Lazarus. What he did do was to "set his face toward Jerusalem." He knew exactly where he was headed and what needed to be addressed there. And he would not be deflected. He had a baptism with which he was to be baptized -- and he was on fire until it be accomplished.

Developing an Incarnational spirituality is not easy. It requires discipline to maintain the focus on the "one thing" in the face of the attraction of all those other competing goods. The seduction of the boundless ideal, the utopian infinite, --- and it is a seduction --- is always at work. Utopian futility must be very engaging or we wouldn't see so much of it. That's why Jesus is a stumbling block: he offers a way of living, not an ideology.

At this point I have a confession to make. Eons ago I passed through a Jesuit experience called tertianship. My confession is this: in spite of 10 months of daily conferences from our tertian instructor, I can remember only one thing he said to us. "The greatest danger in the spiritual life is disillusionment." Dis-illusionment. A fascinating expression. How much of what at that time I would have called a goal in my life was actually a boundless illusion?

But what about the Ignatian 'magis?'

Careful, Wilson. The ice can be thin when one ventures onto a critique of something as centrally Ignatian as the magis.

Actually the distinction between an ideal and a goal, far from lessening our commitment to the 'magis', may help us to understand the concept of goals better and thus focus our efforts the way Jesus did.

It is an occupational hazard of religiously oriented people that because they have lofty ideals they are easily subject to perfectionism. There is always a more perfect outcome that might have been reached, and that fact works against working toward the limited good that could have been achieved. The result can be an immobilizing, Hamlet-like approach to life. The best is the enemy of the good, and so rather than risk failing to achieve the best, one doesn't act at all. The potential residing in the attractor is wasted and disillusionment follows.

I believe the 'magis' can be an enormously powerful impulse in one's spiritual life, as witnessed by the amazing things quite ordinary men and women have achieved under its attraction. But only if the 'greater' remains firmly anchored in the real, the embodied, the incarnational. The 'greater' cannot be allowed to be subtly morphed into the perfect, into a Gnostic ideal floating on the winds of lofty rhetoric. (Need I say 'mission statement' here?) In an incarnational spirituality the greater always goes hand-in-hand with modesty, with humility. In short, with creatureliness. The First Commandment will always remain the most difficult because we are not God and would like to be.

Goals may be quite pedestrian

There is a further difficulty in the very language of 'goals.' Even if we are clear that goals are not ethereal piety and require focus as well as passion, we can miss the point that the very scope of the goal might be quite modest. Because goals have been so very central in our conceptualizing of organizational effectiveness, it's possible that we have come to identify the term only with grandiose projects. It can be the expression of a genuine goal for a businessperson to say "I've got to clear my calendar so I can play in the park with Billy on Saturday --- or get to Emily's recital on Monday evening." All goals are not heroic. And contrary to the rigidity sometimes brought to the table by professionals trained in management by objectives, some can't be quantified. In fact the pedestrian ones just may, as the ads remind us, be "priceless."

I'm sure we all encourage the people at Holy Joy to keep their focus on the star which is Jesus. But all in all it's probably preferable if they keep that as a backdrop and set the goal of having healthier baked goods after the 11 o'clock Mass. Completion date: next week. After that they could check and see which home-bound parishioners aren't even getting day-old donuts.

George B. Wilson, S.J., does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute in Cincinnati.