Utopia, Optimism, Dystopia

On September 11, 2001, our daughter was seven years old. We all woke up that morning to a horrific “accident” at the World Trade Center. It very quickly became apparent that this was not an accident; it was an attack on the United States. I remember telling her that we were going to take her to school and that either Mary or I would find out what had happened and come back for her if we needed to. She remained calm but noticeably alarmed.

Jacquelyn is a “millennial.” Her generation mainly knows a post-9/11 world. This is a world of insecurity and catastrophic world threats. Theirs is a world of lethal climate change conditions, nationalistic right wing rulers and pandemics. They really enjoy dystopian stories of human survival in an entire different world. That world is the one of “Blade Runner,” or Ender’s Game,” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They enjoy these in both print and film. The world is one of living in destruction here on Earth or of escaping Earth to live as strangers in a strange new land. (Is the moon the new land?) They have strong doubts that life and love always stronger than death and hate?

As Debby Irving writes in “Waking Up White,” mine is a generation of optimism. (These meanderings are inspired by reading a chapter in which she characterizes our generation, the Boomers.) We were born after Word War II. It was the era of the postwar GI bill and all of the increased prosperity that the Bill brought so many Americans. Our parents acquired new houses, new cars, televisions, kitchen appliances and more and more stuff. Americans had saved Europe and the world from fascist dictators and a Japanese Emperor whose people would die for him. We had the nuclear bomb, the ultimate weapon. Yes, we were soon in the Cold War with Russia but we would win that too.

Doubts started creeping into this optimistic perspective fairly soon. We are not able to force Russia out of Korea and had to settle for a treaty that still hasn’t ended that war. But then JFK, the young, vibrant idealist, came along to boost our spirits. But the Vietnam War came along as well and the doubts returned. However, the bottom line remained: we are Americans and we can achieve anything we set our minds to. We can walk on the moon. We can make progress in civil rights. We have the Peace Corp and can right the wrongs that exist throughout the world.

Irving talks about seeing oherelf as one of the “privileged” during her upbringing. She was born into an East Coast family who traced its roots to colonial America. “Waking Up White…” is her story about becoming aware of that privileged status. One of her points is that if she is “privileged,” then there are those who are not privileged. Who are they? What does it mean to be something other than privileged? Her larger thesis is that most white people in America and certainly those of us reading her book are among the privileged.

Are “privileged” and “blessed” the same? My parents were poor. They came from upper New York farming families and made the adventurous trip to Fort Lewis, Washington. My dad had been assigned there during the War. But they didn’t quite get there. They stopped in Grants Pass, Oregon to pick apples and pears in order to make enough money for the last miles of their journey. They ended up staying in Gr4ants Pass. All of us children grew up on a farm. We counted our blessings. The one major tragedy that entered our lives and almost shattered our family was our brother Damian’s death. But we grew up believing that we were and are blessed, but certainly not privileged. On the other hand we were somewhat like those families that Irving describes. There were no negroes in Grants Pass, at least not until LBJ’s War on Poverty program established a Job Corps center outside of town. My parents were among those who were vocally against the center. I didn’t know that negroes were actually human beings like me until I met some kids from Portland’s inner city while working at a summer camp during my senior year of high school.

What is the opposite of a dystopian world view? Possibly a utopian one. This summer I attended a virtual lecture (via Zoom) on the 19th century transcendental utopian movement in New York. Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed at Blithedale for awhile. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in several utopian communities. Bronson and Abby Alcott were part of the movement and founders of a couple of utopian communities. They raised Louisa May Alcott in the utopian Fruitlands community. Henry David Thoreau was a family friend. Utopians believe that human beings are not only called to be better but can be so. They try to demonstrate through their communal life what that something better looks like. There is no particular generational name for utopians. They have been part of Western societies for centuries. In fact the writer of Luke-Acts describes a early Christian utopia in chapter 2 of Acts: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. There were numerous such communities in the eastern part of the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some had a core Christian belief system. Others were more humanistic in nature. The ones to which Emerson, Hawthorne and the Alcotts found themselves drawn were part of the Transcendental movement of the day.

Dystopians look past the current world and believe that it is coming to a bleak end. Survival will be in a very different, bleaker world, if we survive at all. Utopians look at the current world and wish for something better. Both are different from the Boomers. We are optimists. We see what is and believe that not only can there be a better world but that we can and will make it so.

About Jerry

Catechumenate ministry is my passion. I have been involved in the catechumenate since 1980 in both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal branches of the Church. I am a "progressive," ecumenical Christian who is realistic enough to know that the Church has never been "One"; is often not "Holy"; strives to be "Catholic" and is "Apostolic" only when members respect the Tradition rather than the latest customs. I have been fortunate to be able to focus on various elements of philosophy, theology and Christian history during my studies. I am able to bring them all to bear in catechumenate ministry.
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