Utopia, with limits

When I was a child, there was a popular song whose chorus repeated this line: Everyone is searching for Utopia.

Sep 10, 2016

By Fr Ron Rolheiser
When I was a child, there was a popular song whose chorus repeated this line: Everyone is searching for Utopia. And we all are. Every one of us longs for a world without limits, for a life where nothing goes wrong, for a place where there’s no tension or frustration. But it never happens. There’s no such place.

Anahid Nersessian recently wrote a book entitled, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment, within which she criticizes various ideologies for, naively, giving the impression that we can have a world without limits. She particularly blames liberal ideology which, she submits, privileges limitlessness by setting “itself, almost by default, against the governing and guiding of desire.” But, as she argues in the book, limitation is what’s life-giving. We will find happiness only when we accommodate ourselves to the world by minimizing the demands we place on it. For Nersessian, if Utopia is to be had, it will be had only by finding the realistic limits of our lives and adjusting ourselves to them. Over-expectation makes for disappointment.

She’s right. Believing there’s a world without limits makes for unrealistic expectations and a lot of frustration. By thinking we can find Utopia, we invariably set up the perfect as the enemy of the good; thus habitually denigrating our actual relationships, marriages, careers, and lives because they, unlike our fantasies, perpetually have limits and, therefore, always seem second-best.

Nersessian tends to blame liberal ideology for giving us this impression, but the unrealistic dream and expectation of Utopia is most everywhere in our world. In effect, we no longer have, either in our churches or in our world, the symbolic tools to properly explain or handle frustration. How so?

When I was a child, my head didn’t just reverberate with the tune, Everyone is Looking for Utopia, it was also reverberated with a number of other tunes I’d learned in church and in the culture at large. Our churches then were teaching us about something it called, “original sin”, the belief that a primordial fall at the origins of human life has, until the end of time, flawed both human nature, and nature itself, in such a way that what we will meet and experience in this life will always be imperfect, limited, somewhat painful, and somewhat frustrating.

Sometimes, this was understood in an overly-simplistic way and sometimes, it left us wondering about the nature of God, but nonetheless it gave us a vision within which to understand life and handle frustration. At the end of the day, it taught us that, this side of eternity, there’s no such thing as a clear-cut, pure joy. Everything has a shadow. Happiness lies in accepting these limits, not in stoic resignation, but in a practical, buoyant vision that, because it has already incorporated limit and has no false expectations, lets you properly receive, honor, and enjoy the good things in life. Since the perfect cannot be had in this life, you then give yourself permission to appreciate the imperfect.

This religious vision was reenforced by a culture which also told us that there was no Utopia to be had here. It told us instead that, while you may dream high and you may expect to live better than your parents did, don’t expect that you can have it all. Life cannot deliver that to you. Like its religious counterpart in its explanation of original sin, this secular wisdom too had its over-simplistic and flawed expressions. But it helped imprint in us some tools with which to more realistically understand life. It told us, in its own flawed way, a truth that I have often quoted from Karl Rahner: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we ultimately learn that, here in this life, there is no finished symphony. How succinct and how accurate!

It’s interesting to note how this religious view is paralleled in the atheistic view of Rahner’s contemporary, the Nobel-Prize winning writer, Albert Camus. Camus, who did not believe in God, famously proposed an image within which to understand human life and its frustrations: He compared this world to a medieval prison. Some medieval prisons were deliberately built to be too small for the prisoner, with a ceiling so low that the prisoner could never stand fully upright and the room itself too small for the prisoner to ever stretch out fully. The idea was, that the frustration of not being able to stand up or stretch out fully, would eventually break the prisoner’s spirit, like a trainer breaking a horse. For Camus, this is our experience of the world. We can never stand fully upright and/ or stretch out fully. The world is too small for us. While this may seem severe, stoic, and atheistic; in the end, it teaches the same truth as Christianity, there’s no Utopia this side of eternity.

And we need, in healthy ways, to be integrating this truth into our lives so as to better equip ourselves to handle frustration and appreciate the lives that we are actually living.

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