Over the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to work with a number of communities. This work has involved a great deal of listening; giving ear to people’s stories, dreams and laments. As I reflect on these experiences, I have come to see two impulses at work, the nostalgic and the utopic. The nostalgic focuses on “the good old days,” memories doled out like cups of sugar and lined with white-picket fences. Recollections of a time where things were simply “better.”
When this impulse is at work, people tend to experience a type of selective amnesia. A state where elements of the past, particularly those that don’t align with a present agenda, are forgotten. The reality is, not everything in “the good old days” were good. Such an admission can frustrate any attempt at replicating the past in the present, so people tend not to bring it up.
Alternatively, the utopic presents a vision of a distant and perfect future. A time completely unlike the present, filled with sunshine and lollipops. Such a drive doesn’t take into account the human condition, for as history has taught us, when imperfect people seek perfection, they fail. In fact, “Utopia,” a term coined by Thomas More, means “no place,” as there is no place, or nowhere that the “perfect” has been realized. In my experience, when this no place is sought, those with differing visions or perspectives are displaced. They are either viewed as problems to be fixed or an as obstacles to be overcome.
Further to the above, I claim that both these impulses tend to disrupt community efforts by introducing an ideal, a unit of measurement born out of scarcity, by which the present is weighed. Here the focus becomes on what is lacking and is expressed in conversations that begin with, “If only…” “If only we had enough…”, “If only we could go back to…,” “If only there were…,” etcetera. When these types of conversations occur, how can the focus shift from scarcity to abundance, from problem to possibility? I believe the answer can be found in nurturing two dispositions, thanksgiving and hopefulness.
In this context, thanksgiving is retrospective. Here people are encouraged to look upon past accomplishments or experiences, not to recreate them, but to gratefully learn from them. When working with groups I like to ask the following questions: “Do you remember a time when members of your community worked together and achieved a positive outcome?” “What did you learn from that experience?” Out of this a local wisdom emerges, a tradition that can be drawn from when navigating the present. In close relation to thanksgiving we have hopefulness.
Hopefulness emerges when we look to the past with thanksgiving, and to the present with confidence. It is saying, “We did something then, and we can do something now.” It is believing that we have enough, and that we are enough, when it comes to creating the future we wish to inhabit. In opening a hopeful space, I again begin with questions. The first is, “What is something that you are good at?” I typically ask everyone present to share as I write down their responses. I then put these responses on display and ask, “Based on your responses, what are some things you believe you can do together?” As people share their ideas, the future enters the present, making it accessible and attainable. It is no longer some distant unachievable goal, but a reality that they themselves can build and strive towards. It is no longer an articulation of a no place, but the development of a good place. A reality where people are invited to share and use their gifts for the Common Good.