Purpose Vs. Idealism

Published in on Nov 18, 2021

Recently Gail Roudebush, who edits the Praxis workbooks and who’s been involved with WCA and its projects for over a decade now, said something great. We were talking about how WCA has a difficult relationship with people who think of themselves as idealists; sometimes it seems like we attract them over and over even though we always end up disappointing them and they always end up frustrating us. It’s like moths to a flame -- if the flame were tired and exasperated and wishing the moths would do something more useful with themselves. Gail said, “Well, that’s because idealism is different than purpose. What WCA has is purpose.”

And I said, “AAHHH!”

Merriam Webster defines idealism as “the practice of forming ideals or living under their influence” and ideal as “existing as a mental image or in fancy or imagination only; broadly : lacking practicality; relating to or constituting mental images, ideas, or conceptions”, while purpose is “the feeling of being determined to do or achieve something”. WCA’s purpose is to offer as much acupuncture as it possibly can to ordinary people who need it, so that they can use it on their own terms, in whatever way works best for them. And while WCA’s purpose might be appealing to people who orient themselves towards ideals, it actually has very little to do with idealism itself.

As it turns out, untangling the ways that people confuse purpose with idealism is important for punks, students, and prospective POCA Tech students. And it’s particularly relevant to the tasks required for making and maintaining a social container for community acupuncture.

All of WCA’s operations are based on our observations over the last two decades about how acupuncture actually works, as opposed to how anybody thinks it SHOULD work, and on how people actually behave in relationship to acupuncture, instead of how they SHOULD behave. Hence our mission of offering people as much acupuncture as they want, so that they can use it in support of whatever goals they have. We’re not trying to get anybody to believe in anything; we’re only creating a resource for people to use on their own terms. This practical, adaptive approach has made WCA resilient.

For us, the distinction between idealism and purpose has to do with being aware that there are plenty of people out there, legions even, who want to tell our patients what they should do and how they should manage their health, but there are few people who are willing to buckle down and do the work to create actual resources for them. I don’t think anybody needs more shoulds. However, there are a lot of people (particularly low income people), who could really benefit from having more options. Especially when it comes to managing chronic pain and chronic conditions.

Ironically, some of the punks, students, and prospective students who appear most passionate about community acupuncture and other health equity topics in the abstract are also the least able or willing to do the on-the-ground labor to make it possible for people like our patients to receive community acupuncture. This is a big problem for POCA Tech, because we measure our success by the actual treatments that our graduates provide to actual people who need them, as opposed to our graduates’ passion for the concept of accessible acupuncture.

Access to acupuncture doesn’t magically happen as a result of anyone passionately believing that it SHOULD happen -- somebody has to suck it up and DO something. In the society that we live in, that means somebody has to make a social container for affordable acupuncture, which requires contact with some very non-ideal elements such as small business -- and other people. We live in capitalism, with other flawed, suffering humans. There is no charitable funding source, nor any kind of universal healthcare, that will pay for ongoing acupuncture treatment for people of ordinary incomes with garden variety problems like headaches, back pain, anxiety, stress, and depression. Of course it would be better if there were, but in the meantime, there are a lot of people in immediate need; people are literally dying as a result of unmanaged pain. WCA decided, a long time ago, not to wait for help from the powers that be, because we were pretty sure it wasn’t coming.

And indeed, it has yet to show up. Meanwhile we keep treating people, year in and year out. And that’s the approach that POCA Tech teaches: get your act together to treat people in the world we live in now, don’t wait for it to become more ideal. (Yet another example of a foundational decision. See also: control what you can control, and talk is cheap.)

A common feature of the idealism that we’ve encountered at WCA and POCA Tech is the expectation and the demand that other people should change in order to meet an ideal of how things SHOULD be. By contrast, purpose involves taking responsibility for what we want to accomplish, and putting all our attention on that -- as opposed to wasting any energy on what other people are or aren’t doing. In a best case scenario, idealism represents latent energy that can be converted into purpose. However, this almost always requires the idealist to lower their expectations, in the exact same way that people being treated for chronic pain have to lower their expectations for relief -- in both cases, to be able to persevere in a context of slow, incremental progress.

Hope is a discipline and survival is a triumph -- that’s the reality that many, many community acupuncture patients are living, especially those with chronic pain. Purpose helps you maintain hope and it also helps you survive (there’s even science to that effect). Idealism sets you up for disappointment and burnout. And this is the perspective we believe that you pretty much have to embrace if you want to make a durable, resilient social container for community acupuncture.