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 criticises various ideologies for, naïvely, 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, she argues, limitation is what’s life-giving. We will find happiness only when we accommodate ourselves to the world by minimising 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. Overexpectation 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 almost 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 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 a 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, honour 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.
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