A Better Word Than Utopia

Thank you to everyone who read and shared my poem for Sandy Hook. The amount of hits for that post far exceed any amount of traffic that I have ever received here before. Written quickly and from a place of stunned grief, I take that as a reminder that poetry is central to our human experience, and that we need it most at the extremes: at weddings, at funerals, and after tragedies like Sandy Hook. Except there are no tragedies “like” Sandy Hook: each of these shootings are painfully unique.

The poem also made me aware of a dangerous cynicism that had somehow become a default set of assumptions masquerading as realism. I have believed for some time–and without even being aware that I had decided to believe this–that the world was broken beyond any immediate repair. Life might one day reach some kind of qualified utopia, where every living human enjoyed the kind of happiness I am blessed with, but that would be hundreds if not thousands of years away.

And although I think I am mostly a kind person, most of the time; this cynicism permitted me a lack of urgency. All I needed to do was leave the world a little better than how I found it.

Don’t get me wrong: even doing that much good requires constant effort. Those of us leading privileged lives are shielded from the negative consequences of our actions at every turn. One  strange by-product of free markets seems to be a freedom from having any awareness of where things come from or where they go.  To be aware, to swim against that tide, can take up most of the little free time we allow ourselves.

But it’s not enough. Its just not enough. The world is getting better–Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature has convinced me of that–but that’s cold comfort to the millions in slavery, in pain, in hunger, exiled and imprisoned now. Justice deferred is justice denied.

Now, I wish I had a better word than utopia for our destination. Because just as my cynicism was dangerous, there is an equally fearful optimism that takes Great Leaps Forward and damn the soft human bodies trapped under the wheels of progress. Utopia is the wrong word, and I don’t have the right one.

I know what the new word feels like, because I live it most days: freedom of speech, of creative expression; freedom from want and fear; freedom from discrimination and oppression; the blessings of family, community and love; a sense of purpose and belonging; sick days and vacations, weddings and new nephews; life, liberty and the catch-and-release of happiness.

But what I don’t have is peace of mind, and I think that’s good. To quote Shanley’s nun, “maybe we’re not supposed to sleep well.”  I am not special or more deserving than the families of Sandy Hook now in deep mourning, nor the communities in Syria and Congo consumed in war. I am lucky, except this particular kind of luck–born a healthy straight white man on the east coast on America–is so far past the die-roll of luck that it might as well be a super-power, and, well, with great power comes great responsibility.

So if you’re still reading this long post, here is what I’ve been wondering:

What if that qualified utopia–a world where everyone enjoys their own unique variations of my blessings–was possible within my own lifetime?

How would I live differently, if that were true?

Even writing it, I feel like scolding myself for both naivete and self-importance.

But how would I live differently, if I could live to see such a world come to pass? If I could help bring it about?

I don’t know yet. But I do know it’s connected to the end of the poem:

After there are no words,
We must make new ones,
Words fashioned from the sounds
Children make when
They collide in bright-eyes and bruised-knees
On playgrounds,
Words that don’t wait
To make the world
What we say it is
When we say
This is what the world is
To children.

This post is an acknowledgement of a new beginning for me, and I hope to live up to the promise of it. I’m working on another post about gun violence, but I felt I needed to talk about this larger thing first.  More soon.

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