We all create our own personal utopias. They are constructs in the mind of how we want or expect life to be, but they seldom resemble reality. To be more precise, life usually doesn’t turn out the way we hoped despite our imagination that it should be otherwise. A stanza from a poem called “The Garden” published posthumously in 1681 by Andrew Marvell expresses this I think:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds and Seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.

It suggests a Utopian vision in a sense that it explores an inner journey as a refuge from earthly cares in a struggle to balance spirituality with humanity. In reality, of course, it is impossible to separate ourselves from our humanity and the desires that go along with it. It is at best an illusion of sorts. The word utopia, in fact, comes from the Greek meaning ‘not a place’ or ‘no place’. Most Utopian visions cannot exist in reality, but provide the illusion as a motivation for personal perfection in an imperfect natural world.  Here are some examples of illusions in life where we endeavor to create personal utopias:

1.)  Relationships are partly illusion in that you never really know the true nature of a person. Often we project onto another person traits and characteristics they may not possess. When the illusion is shattered, the relationship cannot be sustained further.

2.) Self-image is a kind of illusion. We often see ourselves differently than others see us; in good and bad ways sometimes. The ability to self-reflect is necessary to bridge this disconnect in viewpoint. This is somewhat related to the first example.

3.)  Knowledge or what we think we know is part of an illusion. Much of what we think we know is based on perception; perceiving the world, other people, or the nature of life. This falls into the realm of study known as Epistemology.

Perception it seems is at the heart of illusions, and hence our personal utopias. The perception is the illusion – be it in relationships, self-image or the nature of the universe. Personal utopias seem to play a role in helping satisfy desires and meeting personal needs in the face of a reality that is much more harsh. This is a philosophical point of view meant to promote thought, and is not necessarily the only interpretation. Nevertheless, personal utopias seem to play an important role in our lives.

A more concrete example of personal utopias is embodied in what we call social networks like Facebook or Myspace. These represent a virtual image of our lives – an electronic simulacra if you will. In such places we arrange a representation of ourselves, surrounded by only the people we like and excluding those that may interfere with our world-view or disrupt harmony. In photos and video we can manipulate just how we wish to appear to others. We can say whatever we choose, even the things we would never say to another person face to face, something which psychologists call disinhibition. As an extreme example of the latter, witness the plethora of inappropriate comments posted at the end of online news stories each day – accessible through our social network. These social networks are just-so worlds created and maintained by us, sustained by millions of others doing the same – each with their own personal utopia creating a collective vision that bears little resemblance to reality when looked at as a whole. It is all in the perception, the illusion that it means something. This is a rather predictable outcome as neurologists argue that we learn to interact with the world by mirroring others. I have made an observation that some people will express an emotion in a social network such as “I miss you” or “I love you” and may even offer a virtual kiss, but in actual person-to-person interaction such expressions are never offered. It is perhaps just another example of disinhibition in online interaction. I read something interesting in an article recently that stated:

The speed at which we communicate determines what we can do, what we can see, how we perceive, and whether we can adjust our own sense of reality to a larger, more complex frame of reference, one that encompasses the separate needs and points of view of others.

I think this goes to the core of my example of social networks as personal utopias. Are we able to go from our own personal world-view in Utopian vision to something larger and more complex that has a basis in reality? My sense is that it is not possible because we cultivate personal utopias by our very nature. I am not advocating an abandonment of personal utopias because they serve a purpose in giving us a perspective on how we would like the world and our lives to be. They give us something to strive for. But it ends there. I think expecting the fantasy to become reality is a fatal illusion and a recipe for unhappiness. What I do advocate is to think about this subject and try to find some balance in your own philosophy that satisfies your own needs as well as the needs of others. It is ultimately the realization that while we each have our own personal utopia, there is a dynamic at work on how we can all interact to make a better world, be it in real life relationships or virtual social networks. My perspective on this is based not just on philosophical meandering but personal experience too, but this may just be my personal utopia as well. Nevertheless, it seemed an interesting thought worth sharing.

As Prospero proclaims in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” The ‘stuff’ Prospero refers to is not merely the object of a wish, but the materials of illusion. Think about it inside and outside your own personal utopia, whatever that may be. You may find there is a greater happiness to be found by understanding the materials of illusion rather than the relying on the wishes that your personal utopia promises. In the final analysis, we all have our own personal vision, but have a shared illusion. Maybe this is a better way to connect in meaningful ways for relationships, self and the quest for knowledge. Consider it…

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