September 2 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


To be happy we must accept the truth that there is no utopia this side of eternity

Fr Ronald Rolheiser

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 titled Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment, within which she criticises various ideologies for, naively, 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, as she argues in the book, limitation is what’s life-giving. We will find happiness only when we accommodate ourselves to the world by minimizing 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. Over-expectation 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 most 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 was 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.

This religious vision was re-enforced by a culture which also told us that there was no Utopia to be had here. It told us instead that, while you may dream high and you may expect to live better than your parents did, don’t expect that you can have it all. Life cannot deliver that to you. Like its religious counterpart in its explanation of original sin, this secular wisdom too had its over-simplistic and flawed expressions. But it helped imprint in us some tools with which to more realistically understand life. It told us, in its own flawed way, a truth that I have often quoted from Karl Rahner: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we ultimately learn that, here in this life, there is no finished symphony. How succinct and how accurate!

It’s interesting to note how this religious view is paralleled in the atheistic view of Rahner’s contemporary, the Nobel-Prize winning writer, Albert Camus. Camus, who did not believe in God, famously proposed an image within which to understand human life and its frustrations: He compared this world to a medieval prison. Some medieval prisons were deliberately built to be too small for the prisoner, with a ceiling so low that the prisoner could never stand fully upright and the room itself too small for the prisoner to ever stretch out fully. The idea was that the frustration of not being able to stand up or stretch out fully would eventually break the prisoner’s spirit, like a trainer breaking a horse. For Camus, this is our experience of the world. We can never stand fully upright and or stretch out fully. The world is too small for us. While this may seem severe, stoic, and atheistic; in the end, it teaches the same truth as Christianity, there’s no Utopia this side of eternity.

And we need, in healthy ways, to be integrating this truth into lives so as to better equip ourselves to handle frustration and appreciate the lives that we are actually living.



Leave a Reply

latest opinions

Faith and forgiveness in the Democratic Republic of Congo

April 17th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Reporter Ryan McDougall explains why we shouldn't forgot about SCIAF's...

The virtue of patience will see us all through

March 30th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

James Bundy finds lessons from the saints for the present...

Rich lessons to be learned from an unsought sabbatical

March 30th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Fr Ronald Rolheiser explains why we must show love to...

We must remember the victory of Easter

March 30th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Fr Jim Clarke says it is important that we remember...

Social media

Latest edition


exclusively in the paper

  • Unite in prayer against the virus, Paisley bishop pleads
  • Papal award recognises 60 years of Faithful service
  • Catholic high school leads trend with positive outcomes for pupils
  • New memorials celebrate Croy’s proud mining heritage
  • Top Catholic university rolls out programme in Scotland

Previous editions

Previous editions of the Scottish Catholic Observer newspaper are only available to subscribed Members. To download previous editions of the paper, please subscribe.

note: registered members only.

Read the SCO