Leaving Utopia: A Glimpse of How the World Could Be

A little over a year ago, I made my first visit to Järna, Sweden, home of the Youth Initiative Program (YIP), a one-year social entrepreneur learning program for 18-25 year olds. As I was preparing to depart, one of the YIPpies stopped by my room to ask me how I felt about my visit. It was then that I spoke the lyrics to what would become the first song I ever wrote when I said, “I feel like I’m packing to leave utopia.”

That was foreshadowing. It wasn’t until my third visit, two weeks ago, that I would really encounter utopia, a glimpse of how the world could be.

From March 30 to April 3, the 27 YIPpies that comprise this year’s cohort hosted 260 of their peers—and a few of us older folk—at the Initiative Forum. On the surface, it looked like any well-designed gathering for young people: a lively mix of inspirational talks, intimate conversation, creative workshops, practical skills, music, celebration, dance and play. There was magic, too, in the surprise of fire dancers and sky lanterns, gifting boards and Easter egg hunts, fusion music improv and fine soil-eating dining. And then there was Järna—the magnetic power of the Baltic Sea, its enchanted forest and this consciously stewarded land, where people and place dance in harmony.

And even all that isn’t what I’m talking about. The utopia I caught a glimpse of isn’t a perfect land of magic, joy and good spirits. Quite the opposite. It is the raw, broken, exposed quality of people’s hearts that is still catching my breath, even as I sit here at home in Boston, wondering what mystery revealed itself in Järna.

I was invited to give a lecture on the first morning of the Forum. So I told a story, talked about the Two Loops and explored the trembling between walking out and walking on. It was a good talk, and the response was very positive. But it wasn’t until two days later when my friend and colleague Kiara Nagel gave her lecture that I began to understand what was happening in this place. Kiara shared a meandering story about cultural differences that served as a device for spiraling into her truth, which about two-thirds of the way into the lecture, leapt from her heart and poured down on all of us. Witnessing her was like watching someone crack open the doors of their ribcage and shine a light on what lives inside. She shared her questions and her fears from a place of strength, not weakness, daring to ask, how are we to be fully human in these times? And through that asking—through that willingness to be seen—she showed us an answer.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been willing to be seen like that—at least not in public. I’ve been taught to gather knowledge and experience, and then to offer that back in some well crafted, engaging, witty form. We live in a culture that honors polished performance over the overwhelming simplicity of someone’s truth, delivered in its shaky nakedness. And I’ve learned to be polished. But I suspect it is that very nakedness that creates the conditions through which beauty can arise.

Maybe it was there all along, but after Kiara’s talk, I began to notice how much vulnerability was in the eyes of these young people who had come to the Forum to ask—for real, like it mattered more than anything—how they could contribute to creating positive change in the world. And then I noticed the long hugs, the capacity to hold someone’s gaze, the sweet silences—all the spaces in between the talk and the action and the celebration in which so many of us began to crack open our ribcages and shine a light on what’s inside.

And slowly, slowly, I am beginning to do the same.