Care of the Soul: The Dream of Utopia
Have you ever found yourself in a beautiful place, free from your worries, everything in its place, time almost at a standstill? I have a memory like that of stretching out in a rowboat on a sunny day in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, the boat at anchor, as I read a book among the dozens that excited me during my doctoral studies at Syracuse University. A moment like that is a taste of utopia. The word means “no-place” and “good-place” at the same time, and that moment on the lake was for me a place set apart and also a moment of sheer goodness.
Now let me quote a passage from the Gospel of Matthew:
The sky kingdom is drawing near.
Care for those who are suffering.
Wake up those who are unconscious.
Refresh those who have suffered rejection.
Get rid of daimonic tendencies.
The sky kingdom is a place apart, ideal and full of pleasure. The day I enjoyed the boat in the lake was utopian in that it wasn’t like every other day. It had the frisson, the special electric delight, of a moment of perfection. The image of the sky can evoke such a place and such a moment.
I like to think of Jesus’ vision for a new way of being in the world as utopia. I don’t mean a perfect, romanticized, and escapist fantasy image. I mean a hard-nosed, realistic way of imagining what life on the planet could be, along with the resolution to bring this state, this new kind of “kingdom,” into being.
We get a similar insight into utopia in the Tao Te Ching:
The world is a sacred vessel;
it is not something that can be acted upon.
Those who act on it destroy it;
Those who hold on to it lose it.
Actual utopian communities never work out well, though there have been many experiments, especially in America. Maybe the secret is not to make a utopia but to live in a utopian way. The actual utopia is, as Jesus says, always approaching, almost here but not quite.
I think utopia should be in your imagination and in the plan for your life. Imagine doing your best to make a life and personality that shows what utopia could be. When people meet you, they don’t encounter the old world with its neurotic self-interest and combativeness. No, they see someone trying to do it differently, even if the result isn’t perfect. When they meet you, they feel: I’ve never seen anything like this before. Here is a person beyond kindness and beyond acceptance and understanding. This feeling of being in another new and better world is essential to utopia, and your task as a utopian is to do things differently and better.
We see many strong hints of utopia in the teachings of Jesus, the Tao, and many other spiritual and not so spiritual sources. Jesus’ plan is quite comprehensive: offer care, not cure, whenever you see suffering. When you have to deal with stupidity and ignorance, help wake people up. Don’t let problems go untouched. When you come across people who are rejected for race, nationality, economic status, or even illness, do something about it. Give them hope. Finally, do your best to banish people’s demons: xenophobia, narcissism, greed, jealousy, chronic anger. This is Jesus’ recommended path to utopia, what he calls the sky kingdom.
The Tao suggests a particular kind of not-doing or non-action. This is not literal passivity but action free of striving and moralism and personal agendas and goals. You get to utopia by daily practice. Imagine, for instance, that your partner or child does something that annoys you. Instead of your usual complaining or shouting or slamming, you find some inner peace and a bigger perspective—and do nothing. Imagine how powerful that calm silence could be.
Utopia exists in your heart and your life, not in some vain hope for a perfect world. Your mind could be utopia, if you could reframe everything that happens in terms of your vision of peace and creative non-action and if you decide to always adopt the role of healer. You can’t expect someone else to be utopian if you’re not there.
I’m drawn to the idea of utopia also because of my namesake and idol Thomas More’s most famous book, Utopia. Some say what makes his utopia stand out from other more political types is his humanism. It is also his loyalty to the Jesus way, his love of family and children, his life of learning and creative output, and his abiding and impressive sense of humor and wit. Utopia never fully exists in reality, but occasionally you get hints of it, and that seems to be enough. It is always approaching, and that itself is a mysterious quality worth an hour of meditation. So here’s a riddle: What is real but only imagined? Present, but never fully here. It could be the most important thing in life, yet it starts with the letter “U,” which means nothing.