The sun stared, lidless and relentless, down at the dust and sand I slowly traversed. The town that baked there was hardly deserving of any name connoting civilization, much less that desert wayfarer’s dream-word, “oasis”. No waving palm trees; no pools of cool water to waste on dry and cracked feet. Still, to anyone like myself who had somehow survived even a brief stay in the arid deserts (in the quest for companionship), the low huts that provided shade were as welcome as Eden itself.
I sat down against a wall in the center of the town. No one moved about in the heat of the day; for all I knew, the entire town had been wiped out by a sandstorm. I lowered my head and fell instantly asleep.
When I awoke the sun was still high in the sky. I sensed a presence next to me and turned my head. A man was sitting there silent, dressed in white, and with an intricately-knotted turban that topped a wizened face. He looked at me, then wordlessly offered a waterskin. Such gifts are not to be questioned, and so I drank a few gulps, handing the waterskin back and touching my forehead in thanks. He turned and looked at me fully then, and I saw that his right eye, which had been hidden before, was not an eye but a star. He nodded, apparently to himself, and leaned back against the wall, hiding the curious eye.
“You are an idealist,” he said suddenly in a deep, gravelly voice.
He was right. That was why I was half-dead in the desert.
“How can you tell?” I asked. The barest hint of a smile touched the man’s face and his left eye closed. He inhaled deeply. “I can tell,” he said. I let it pass. I didn’t bother to ask why he had initiated a conversation. I had learned that words have a way of multiplying themselves needlessly, and I did not want to start such a cycle. Besides, energy and breath were precious commodities. If the man had a purpose in talking to me, it would become plain in time. If not, the gift of water had bought the man my patience for as long as he wanted it.
I had not long to wait.
“So, idealist: what is idealism?”
It did not surprise me in the least that the nature of the conversation I was engaged in with a strange man in the middle of a desert was philosophical. I had learned that a test of any kind might arrive at any moment. I considered carefully. Though I knew I was an idealist, I didn’t know exactly what it was, or how to explain the force that had driven me here. I struck on an answer born from my own experience.
“Idealism in a sphere is the willingness to sacrifice everything that others consider important for an object of that sphere.”
“Why sacrifice?” He asked, pausing for a moment before the word “sacrifice”, as if to inspire doubt. I thought for another moment.
“Because sacrifice is where what is ideal (belonging to the realm of ideas) is turned into what is real. Thus, since ideas can only affect when made real, anyone who seeks to be a true idealist must sacrifice to make the bind between the two realms. Otherwise, the individual is a false idealist, that is to say, not an idealist at all. We conclude that idealism in a sphere, namely the system which defines the exemplar of a true idealist of that sphere, involves not just sacrifice, but indeed the sacrifice of everything.”
I cursed myself for using so many words, but the man smiled more perceptibly than before. He stood up and dusted off his white robes. He looked down at me, and again I saw the star which gleamed in the place of his right eye.
“Well said. Now I will leave you with a question. The object (of the sphere in which you are an idealist) you seek; are you prepared to sacrifice everything for it?”
I was confused as to the point of the question, but not its answer: “Yes. That is why I am an idealist.”
The man smiled again, and his face softened, but looked more melancholy for it.
“Are you prepared to sacrifice idealism itself?”
Idealism itself? I paused, then reeled, then recovered. “That’s impossible,” I said. “That’s self-defeating.”
The man nodded, and a pain grew in his left eye while the star in his right pulsed and throbbed. He looked at me, somehow more deeply, and the star felt sharper in my mind than any gaze.
“I know,” he whispered, like the sound of sand blowing across stone. Then he cupped his hands in the sign of farewell and walked into the roiling glare of the afternoon. After a few steps he glimmered like a mirage, and I saw him no more.
Which was more the paradox: the man, or the message? I sat in stunned silence for a long time, inscribing the exchange on the tablet of my soul, before slowly standing up. I looked uncertainly in different directions, and hesitated for a brief moment. I looked at my hands. Then I stepped into the sun.