Utopia: If Not Now, When?
This article is an excerpt from my TEDx talk (AçıHighSchool) on April 27, 2021.
For centuries people have been confused by the word Utopia; trying hard, but ultimately failing to figure out what it is actually is. A few years ago, I also started digging into this unsolved mystery. And, like the many others before me, it has lured me down some interesting rabbit holes that I haven’t quite found my way out of. Yet.
Nevertheless, today I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve discovered on my adventures trying to figure out what Utopia might be.
Enter the Rabbit Hole: The Renunciation of Utopia as an Actual Place
According to Western literary history, Thomas More was probably the first to write about Utopia just over 500 years ago. We might even say that More actually introduced the word ‘Utopia’ to us — albeit as kind of play on words.
He swapped the ancient Greek word EU-topia which meant ‘Good Place’ — or ‘a place in which human society and natural conditions are so ideally perfect that there is complete contentment’ — with OU-Topia, which means ‘No Place’, or as we now know it, just the (idea) of such a place.
Both versions of the word sound exactly the same, but the slight change of the prefix and the intention make all the difference. Exposing the difference, it seems, was really the point of the book and the source of the mystery that stands behind More’s enduring — and confusing — predicament.
More opened a window to the ideal world that we can often see in our hearts when we close our eyes, that disappears when we open them. He questioned why our real life doesn’t look and feel more like paradise. To this day, we have all known Utopia to be simply an idea of something ideal, almost an absurdity, something we just cannot achieve in the real world. We take it for granted that it is something completely outside the realm of human capability and living experience. In fact, the ancient version of EU-topia that described it as an actual place is now an obsolete word. Was this More’s actual intention?
For me, the mysterious thing about Utopia is not really More’s island paradise itself — that was only his version of Utopia; but, why he felt compelled to write about it in the first place. Why did he abandon the notion that Utopia could be an actual place? And beyond that, why have we all limited our imaginations, our hopes, and our abilities for the past 500 years?
After years of investigating and trying to project myself into More’s context, I have come to understand More’s Utopia as a story of deep frustration and questioning written at a time when humanity was being separated from the self-created world of nature — our ‘first nature’ — and the man made world — or our ‘second nature’- which was rapidly accelerating during the course of his lifetime. This transition from first to second nature was not something that happened naturally. It was imposed, and it was probably very challenging to live through — especially for More. I think this book was a way for him to silently reflect and protest on what he was experiencing.
Thomas More was not just a writer or a philosopher living in a fantasy world, but an important and influential person in his time. He was a powerful Jack of All Trades, who served as the personal adviser to King Henry VIII, the Lord Chancellor of England, and somehow juggled a huge number of important positions in the government, in academia, and within the Church — all of which were all going through their own, often conflicting, revolutions at the same time. He was at the heart of the action and surely suffered from the personalities he had to split. It was the Protestant revolution, a wild period of history that changed the destiny of humanity, by separating church from state, man from divinity, and each of us from one another. In many ways, the blanket of painful separation that began in More’s lifetime has brought us to overlapping crises that we find ourselves in today.
Like many of us now, More was conflicted by his dharma, or his duty. He was between a rock and a hard place in what he did to make a living to keep his position in society versus how his true self wanted to do it. He was conflicted between role and soul.
It was this conflict that eventually made him lose his head, literally. He was beheaded for treason in 1535, not because of anything he did, but rather something he didn’t do. He would not accept the King, his friend and mentee, to be the ‘Supreme’ authority of the Church, and therefore everything on Earth. For More, that position could only be held by the actual Creator — not by a man. 400 years later, the great Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan summarized this kind of predicament beautifully.
“Even if a person were to be called the King of the World, he would still not be the Emperor of the Universe. The master of the Earth is still the slave of Heaven.”
More chose to die rather than continue living against his convictions. 500 years on, it seems like we’ve reached a milestone to reflect on our own progress and evolution. How far have we progressed? We are well on our way towards getting to Mars. But, have we managed to transcend our small selves and limited perspectives on who we actually are? Is getting to Mars really more doable or important than manifesting Utopia on our own planet? After failing to live in harmony, healing, and beauty on our planet, do we really have a model for humanity ready for export?
It’s Now or Never: Transcending the Utopian Paradox
One lesson we can learn from More is that we need to bridge the gap between what we feel in our hearts and what we do for our work and official duties. More had to make a choice whether to stand up for his deepest beliefs and values or to keep on denying his own sense of truth at the expense of his integrity, intuition, and sense of aliveness. In the end, his convictions were forcefully and brutally put to the test.
For those of us living these days, we do not have the same red hot axe over our heads. Our death is slower, handed out to us in installments. Most of us in the economically advanced world have forgotten what it means to live by our convictions — or even to be aware of what they actually are. We were never forced to develop them, let alone use them or live by them.
In my view, this leaves us vulnerable and exposed to a deep ignorance of our human potential. Before we are delivered our own tough choice and put into More’s Utopian paradox, we need to awaken — to de-numb ourselves and ask some of the fundamental questions:
Are we here to serve each other and our mother nature, the divinity of what we don’t even yet understand, and the great wonder of life?
Or, are we just here to maximize profit and service the man made system and our second nature?
Which reality is worth living? What kind of world do we want to live in?
Red pill or blue pill?
This is the Paradox: You have to give it all up to have it all. If and when a person has surrendered their ego, then they do what is harmony with the universe.
This paradox is something we can all relate to in our own lives, even if we don’t often perceive it from such lofty heights or clear terms. Telling someone else’s story rather than our own is a sure-fire way to lose your sense of wonder and excitement about life. It happens to us every day in our families, our workplaces, at all levels of society. It is chronic, and we all know it exists because it feels like a lie. Unfortunately, there is no way to escape the feeling because it is within you and no one can escape themselves.
It used to be called the blues, and people got them from time to time. I personally love the songs written about them. But, for the past several years, the phenomenon has snowballed into widespread loneliness, depression and mental illness. It greatly worries me that in the past year 45% around the world are suffering more than before, both emotionally and mentally, in addition to the physical suffering COVID-19 has aroused. Most of the people in the world are living longer than ever before — but it is very different thing to feeling fully alive. This loss of aliveness seems like the real pandemic to me.
Looked at from this perspective, the divide More created between Utopia as good place in reality versus just the idea of a good place in our heads, is an important one for us to understand. I think it contains the secret that will show us how to bridge the gap — and how to escape our trap.
I found it very interesting to learn that the first version of Utopia was only written in Latin and not even translated into English until 1551, 16 years after More died. This means it was pretty much a secret until well after his death. Those days, few people knew how to read; even fewer knew how to read or understand Latin. To make it even more obscure, More also created his own Utopian alphabet and words. It seems to me that there was a conscious effort to keep the book quiet. It was never intended to be a best seller. It was more like a secret journal that he kept and shared with a few close friends.
Yet, eventually his message got out and he was heard, though it took another 400 years. In 1938, he was canonized by the Pope as a Martyr and in 2000 as the Patron Saint of Statesmen and Politicians. Clearly, something he experienced and shared stood the test of time, even if that might not have been his intention.
No matter how old we are or what we are doing, I think we can all feel More’s paradox in our own way. It is everywhere around us. It is what we are living through now as we struggle to understand what is real and what is not. We are already deep into a cycle of massive transformation that can easily be compared to the revolution that More lived through 5 centuries ago. If we focus, we can all feel the pull of the separation that was tearing at his heart so long ago.
Actually, one could easily argue that our transition is even more complex. Our dilemma today is figuring out our ‘third nature’ — the collective mitosis we are making towards being cyborgs acting in the new technological version of reality that has quickly shaped our lives in all respects.While we still have a bit of wiggle room and perspective, it is time to reopen the old question of Utopia, and ask whether it is really so hard to realize a ‘good place’ in our life while we still have the time.
It is my hope that this move into our 3rd nature can help create a portal for more solid newness — a trinity, a triangle, a stable shape, that brings us more balance and changes our perspectives on what is actually doable. Just a short time ago, no one could have believed that what we are going through now would have been possible. Yet, ff there is to be a new normal, shouldn’t it be one where achieving the impossible is certainly possible? We are all living proof that it is so.
Stepping into Utopia may be finally within our reach. That is pretty exciting.
Why Utopia? Why Now?
I have to declare that I don’t have any specific qualifications about Utopia, and I am not an authority, expert, or someone that has actually seen and touched it. Actually, one of the greatest things about being a Utopian is that I will probably fail in my attempts to get there, but no one has the right to judge me because no one ever got there. Yet. It is a noble goal.
So why am I so curious about it? Well, I was born in 1973, which makes me a member of generation X, the last generation on earth to know what it was actually like to be a human being in the world before and after computers, the internet, and our always on 24/7 economic society. Living during this period has given me and my generation a unique perspective, because we can only fully understand something that we have experienced. It is embodied wisdom. My generation will be remembered in history as the generation that had the chance to do something with this unique wisdom. The question is, will we?
People with this wisdom are pretty well in the same situation as Thomas More was 500 years ago in the context of their own lives. We can see both sides of the fence. Faced with that perspective, will we do something about it today when we can? Or will we write a secret book, operate under fear, pass the buck to the next generations, and face a similar horrible choice when we face our moment of truth? Or will we do nothing except watch it all unfold?
I grew up in the Canadian wilderness, and experienced what it meant to live in very close contact to mother nature. The interesting thing was that, even though our closest neighbors were nearly a kilometer away, they never actually felt far away. This is very different to the way we live today where our neighbors are nearly strangers, even though they might be just a few meters away from us across the corridor. We hear them moving around above, below and beside us, but we don’t really know who they are, or even how they are doing. So close, yet so far. For me, when growing up it was more like so far, yet so close. I know now that there was something really beautiful in that, something very powerful that I have been missing for a long time.
When I was young, for many years we grew our own vegetables, and had a few cows, chickens, pigs, and lived a self sustaining life, in balance with nature and community. The animals we kept were our friends, and we treated them with love and care - even though we ate them. That was a hard thing to do. But, it did connect me to the food chain and the circle of life in a way that was very real.
Both of my parents worked, we all went to school, there was a small city 30 minutes away, and we were otherwise pretty normal. It was a lot of heavy lifting to live that way. But it was sustainability in action. It was not a rat race. Actually, for my dad, even this way of living was not pure and simple enough. We also had a remote island that was a half hour further away in the middle of no where where I spent most of my summers — and still do. For my dad, the island was his Utopia. My mom would always say to him, ‘Yes…You can take Billy out of the woods, but you can’t take the woods out of Billy’.
Needless to say, I was also a nature boy and a bit of a loner. Not because I wanted to be, but there weren’t enough people around to have another option. I wasn’t always crazy about it then, but I do realize now that such direct contact with wilderness and natural living forever centered me. I never feel alone, even when I am. I feel very grateful to be able to reflect back and find myself there again when I close my eyes, no matter where I am in the world.
When I was finally old enough to be a ‘man’, my call to adventure was not to go on an even deeper quest into the wild to discover myself. I felt I had already done that. I discovered early on what it was like to be a nobody in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to experience how the rest of the world lived and worked, and I figured my Dharma was to to become a somebody somewhere else. One day, I pretty well just left and never really went back, except to visit over summer holidays.
The second half of my life so far has been spent in other countries, and some of the world’s largest cities, always in the heart of the action. It has given me a deep experience of the urban jungle and the often crazy workings of our ‘second’ nature. A few years ago, I started calling myself a Utopian. I was tired of inventing fancy new ways of describing myself on a business card that only made sense to someone else. I decided that I had seen enough of both worlds to make my life work an act of connecting them in the most beautiful ways I can imagine, in my unique way of doing what I do. I chose to make my title my declaration, my noble goal to be what I am here on this earth to do. To be in alignment with my role and soul — to live out my unique duty in this lifetime.
For me, being a Utopian, is being a person willing to accept the impossible mission to make the ‘idea’ of an ideal world a reality. It is the closest word that I can find to explain the thoughts, words, and actions that guide my life.
As a Utopian, very much like More was 500 years ago, I am very concerned about where we are headed, and like I imagine he did, often struggle to really do something meaningful about it.
What I have discovered is that Utopia is not something I can do alone.
John Lennon said that ‘a dream you dream alone is just a dream … A dream you dream together is a reality’. He was so right. I invite you to question whether or not Utopia is really something that is forever beyond your grasp, beyond your abilities. If it feels like it might be possible, who around you feels the same?
Watch out for those people who say, ‘why bother focusing on something that is ‘impossible’ to achieve?’ ‘Things are the way they are for good reason!’ ‘ The impossible is a waste of precious time. It is better to focus on things with certain outcomes, to go with the safe bet, to stick with what you know.’ ‘Don’t rock the boat’. ‘Let someone else focus on the impossible and see where they get….’
This is probably why Tolstoy said ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no body thinks of changing themselves.’
Creating Utopia starts with each of us re-defining what is possible or not, what is a good life or not, and how we can get there together — through unity and togetherness rather than separation.
As a Utopian there are a few main things that trouble me … ,
*I am very concerned about the millions of children being born during our pandemic that have turned 1, 2, and soon 3 and 4 that will never know the wisdom that it takes a village to raise a child.
*I am devastated that my son — and most all urban kids — have not had enough of the close experiences I had within nature that I took for granted when I was his age. Most people I know have lost all contact with their ‘first nature’.
*The longer we are physically distanced from each other — either by this pandemic or the domino effect of change it comes with — I am worried that we are quickly moving in the opposite direction of Utopia, towards Dystopia, as we further separate ourselves from our true nature and fully become cyborg, the product of the ‘third nature’ Information Technology, or the IT, that runs us.
*I am worried that the grow-or-die / winner takes all mentality that is driving our economy, our cities, our society, and our life experience will ultimately make our planet unsuitable for living as we know it.
*I am concerned that we humans are probably smart enough survive whatever comes our way, but we so easily mis-spend our intelligence and attention that we might end up ‘evolving’ in oblivion, somehow relieved that we ‘made it’, even if that means we are living in a fake biosphere that shields us from the real world.
Another hard question we to ask whether the money we put into our pockets more important than the air we breathe? What is truly valuable?
What would it take to create a future economy that is in service to mother earth with all its inhabitants that make it beautiful — not just the few people and money machines that are killing it — and therefore us?
What do we need to change about ourselves so that we can see what is really happening, to learn to give more than we take, and to realize the indigenous wisdom that ‘we are not here passing on the legacy of the past generations, but actually borrowing from our kids and future generations?’
In simple terms, how do we answer this: what kind of world we actually want to live in? To paraphrase Charles Eisenstein, ‘is it a sci-fi fake world where are fully disconnected from each other, scratching out an existence in an ugly bubble or bunker, breathing in bottled oxygen, and looking at beautiful high resolution digital pictures of the planet and way of living that once was?’ Or do we insist on actual Utopia while we still have the chance to live it for real, on this planet?
How do we move from so close yet so far to so far, yet so close? How can we connect deeper than ever before over time and distance?
I guess to be a Utopian means to ask hard questions all the time. Who are we living for? Why are we all actually here, today, at this very time? These are the questions that Siri and Google cannot answer for me, for you, or anyone. These have to come from our own curiosity and imagination — and our own search for love and connection.
Throughout my life, my mother always asks me ‘who are you, really? At 47 years old, it is really getting embarrassing to not know the answer to that question.
All I know is that I am still unfolding. I am slowly realizing that my time on this planet will not come again. This lifetime is the only chance I have to be me. Same for you.
I realize that utopia is a a highly subjective thing — it cannot and should not become objective. That is where the problems start. There is no one singular utopia. Mine will be different than yours, and yours different from everyone else’s. But, when the intention comes from the heart you start to realize that we are all looking for the same thing: unity, and to sense a bigger and better version of ourselves.
Utopia is quite a bit like beauty in that sense — you have to see through another person’s eyes to understand what it actually is. And you have to share what you see to make sure it is something. Together, the shared vision takes on form and meaning.
As we can never see ourselves in reality (our eyes can never see our own face, the way our mouth moves, or the nuanced gestures we use to navigate in the world) we need the reflection of a mirror to understand what and who we are. The simple act of looking into the mirror is an act of separation, forcing us to use an external technology to sense ourselves. By default, this attracts and gives energy to ego and is an incomplete expression of who we are. The only other way we can see ourselves is through the eyes of other people and sentient life forms that we we share consciousness with. Here the reflection is harder to see, but learning how to look at ourselves this way is the only way to sense and connect to our bigger selves, to our eco system. This is where our power to be more than ourself comes from. And I think it is only from that place that we can start creating any real Utopia.
Buckminster Fuller said many wonderful things, but one of them that touches me the most is this: ‘When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong’.
That makes a lot of sense to me — and it is how I can tell if I am on the path to Utopia or Dystopia.
Beauty helps to engage our intuition, our ultimate sense of true and false — which I believe is the same thing as tapping into your full self. It is the part of you that always knows — without needing to know how it knows.
It is where our heart and mind and gut feelings are in perfect harmony. My hair stands on end when this happens to me, which I have learned to trust as my body’s way of saying pay attention to what is going on at this exact moment and follow the trail.
Intuition appears when you focus your full self and whole being on the situation. The answer you are seeking becomes obvious, and you act quickly because you just know what to do.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman
For me, that is what being Utopian has been about so far. The pursuit of the world I feel so clearly in my heart, even if my mind does not yet know the answers. It is the unfolding storybook of my life. There are many chapters to it, and it will probably take my full lifetime to complete. Yet, each chapter will tell the story of how to do the work that I want to see done, with the people that make my heart feel free and light.
I have stopped thinking about this process as my work life. Instead, I look at it as my life work — just a small change of word placement, but a world of difference. Just like More’s Utopia.
The ongoing challenge is to apply this every day with the right effort, at the right time, in the right way, that creates a beautiful result, not only for myself but for the others in my life eco system. It is about the art of living, which is really what the original meaning of economy comes from: Managing the home of our lives.
The good news is that the transformation has begun for all of us, whether we see it or not. The great news is that we have so many new tools at our disposal. The bad news is that we probably do not have a lot of time to learn how to choose them or use them perfectly.
If we don’t aim for perfection, but rather beauty, hopefully the right solutions will come naturally if and when we are ready to fully apply our unique gifts and talents to make it so.
No matter how old you are, the question we all need to be asking ourselves is one way or another about Utopia, or its opposite, Dystopia.
‘What kind of world do you really want to live in?’
If your answer is on this beautiful planet, operating through intuition and love for life, then I welcome you as a fellow Utopian.