by Troy Chapman
The word “utopia” comes from two Greek words: “ou,” which means “no” and “topos,” which means “place.” Utopia is “no-place.” Yet, strangely we continue to search for it. Many now see the neoconservative ideology that led us into war with Iraq as essentially utopian, but after all the carnage there the utopianists are still unfazed, with even the most sober of them willing to admit only that the invasion was “mishandled.” If we’d gone in with more soldiers and not made mistake after mistake along the way, “no-place” would have magically popped into existence.
The same thinking multiplied the American prison system by a factor of five and made us among the world's leaders in per capita incarceration rates over the past two and a half decades. And even now as our schools and social infrastructure lay in shambles there are still those who insist if we just lock up more people for even longer periods, the perfect world they see in their mind will materialize.
It’s easy to look back and see the error of this thinking (for all but the diehards), and it’s easy to get self-righteous about the fact that we “get it” now that the damage is so obvious. But the truth is that many, if not most, Americans embraced both of these follies. Certainly the tough-on-crime mantra was chanted as loudly by liberals as it was by conservatives. Even Oprah, the icon of pop-enlightenment in America, found common ground with Bill O’Reilly in his crusade for harsher prison sentences when she had him on her show a couple of weeks ago.
The point being that “no-place-ism” is seductive not just to a few Americans but to most of us. We’re a people who believe in the perfection, or at least the vast improvement, of humankind. We have from our inception and it’s one of our greatest virtues. It’s also one of our greatest vices.
The virtue of believing we can be better turns into a vice when we decide that not being better — right now — is a sin; when “what we could be” takes over our mind to the exclusion of “what we are.” What’s needed is a balance wherein what we are in this moment is always as important and as right as what we could be in the future, and where both are honored equally.
Raising ourselves to what we could be is like raising a child in this respect. Children are not what they could be nor what they are, but rather something between these two poles. They are something “in-process,” neither this-nor-that but this-and-that. Children are raised well when they’re taught that they are both this and that; they are raised poorly when we have either no expectations (when we reject what they could be) or abusive expectations (when we reject what they are).
The same is true of ourselves and the world. We are in-process and true life unfolds in the space between what we are and what we could be. To ever truly see anyone we must see both of these truths about them. Utopianism is blind in one eye and doesn’t see the half of us that is what it is. Its counterpart is cynicism which is blind in the other eye and doesn’t see the half of us that is what it could be. Only love sees with both eyes, embracing the world as it is and simultaneously calling it to where it could be.
Only love can celebrate imperfection because it sees it as seed, soil, sunlight, and water from which we’re meant to rise and bear fruit. It’s not a rejection of possibility but an embrace of process. It demands humility and trust in God and the universe. It knows we have a role to play in our own unfolding but, just as importantly, that we aren’t the engine or the sole architect of this unfolding.
We’ve all thought at one time or another that the world would be a better place if there were no negative experiences or obstacles, but this thinking is contrary to love. The world has a wisdom of its own that can’t be understood from the individual/ego perspective. Someone once illustrated this with the image of a woven rug we only see the underside of. From where we stand it’s all pointless snags and knots, loose ends and imperfections. But on the top side there’s a pattern that emerges from these loose ends.
Love is believing in and seen this pattern with our spirit. On one side of love is utopianism, on the other, cynicism — a “no-place” and a “rotten-place.” In the middle is on “arms-wide-open” place and the only way to get there is to say yes to it all — yes to the snags, yes to the knots, yes to the loose ends, yes to the imperfections. Yes to life. I’m working on that yes.