Yes, I realize the audacity of writing that the last twenty years were Utopian. I could hear every working class reader swear under their breath when they read it. For them, the nineties was a time when every manufacturing job went overseas. The America of the nineties was no Utopia for most every LGBT person, especially during the worst of the AIDS crisis. The homeless, the mentally ill, and persons of race found little in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Yet, as a mostly-privileged white male with a liberal arts degree, who came of age in the late-nineties/early-thousands, the America promised to me was a Utopian vision. It was hammered into us from middle school that we have to get good grades, we have to participate in those important extracurricular activities, we have to be well-adjusted, because colleges would be looking at us, constantly sizing us up. Because if you didn’t go to college, you wouldn’t have a good job. And if you didn’t have a good job, you’d be a failure at life.
I never felt this pressure from my parents, per se, but I definitely felt it at school. After all, it was pounded into our heads since we were thirteen. Work and you will succeed. Work and you will succeed. We worked and we were promised the world. We were promised a future that never came.
Yes, most of the children of Pruitt-Igoe didn’t think their homes were a Utopia. As they walked to school, they passed piling trash and traveled over blood-splattered pavement. They might accuse me of being naive — and rightly so. Perhaps the children of Harmonie might think the same thing, as they saw the moles and scars of a Utopian Society from within it. Just like all gay children and the black children and the non-Christian children and the fat children and the bullied children and the children not born into privilege — for these the American dream will always remain on the horizon. Jerusalem was forever a dream as their promised future never came. After all, one needs bootstraps first in order to be pulled up by them.
As Tony Kushner wrote in Angels in America: “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. Nothing but a bunch of big ideas and stories and people dying, and then people like you. The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word free to a note so high nobody could reach it. That was deliberate.”
We all forecast our expectations into the future. As children we were asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up”. And today we ask each other, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”. We answer not with where we will be, but where we hope to be. We fashion a present fantasy into something glamorous and label it as the future. Or, perhaps, the natural pessimists among us might answer it with something far darker.
However, regardless of how you answer it — positively or negatively — no one that I know answers that question with any sort of humble honesty. I don’t even know if one can forecast the future in humility. I highly doubt it. Even a promised future is just a guess. Should we even try? Why can’t the future remain a mystery without putting our hopes and dreams on it?
Yes, there’s nothing wrong with goals and dreams . . .
Yet, I’d rather have the faith of a second-century martyr on that sleepless night before their death the following day in front of a cheering crowd. In that dank prison, would they think about what wonderful things would happen to them? Yes, they knew they’d see the beatific vision — but the lion’s teeth come before that. How could they anticipate being subsumed into God when a shamefully painful death awaited them?
What would they dream of that long night?
Would they not sing songs of deliverance in spite of the weighty fear eating away their insides? Would they not be filled with both great faith and great dread at the same time? Would they not be even slightly disappointed that they would never see their children grow or taste fried chicken again or watch a tree dance in the breeze? Yet, they went onto their death in spite of this.
They greeted the future in whatever way it would come. They didn’t fashion it into what they thought it should be. They gave themselves fully to the succession of horrifying moments before being taken up into God. They had to fail before they got the victory. They dreamed of nothing but the present.
I don’t know how not to be disappointed. I don’t know how not to be afraid of the unknown tomorrow. I don’t have your faith or your courage. Forgive me, I’m too weak to dream; I’m too tired to hope in anything but God. But I will greet whatever comes without expectation. I will accept it, a terrifying gift of God. I will pray in spite of the angst and the dread. I will awaken the dawn.