Envisioning Universal Compassion:
A "Topian" Worldview
by Joel Federman
is an excerpt from
The Politics of Universal Compassion (forthcoming)
by Joel Federman
Responsibility for the World
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."--Alan Kay
a day-to-day basis, most of us are so caught up in living in the
world as it is that we don't have much time or energy to focus on
how the world might become better. But, if we take the time to reflect
about it, we find that, in each given moment, we have the ability
to choose how we want to perceive the world, and how we want to
live in it. If we face up to them, we have fundamental choices to
make about who we are in the world, what the world means to us,
and what kind of world we want to help create.
For many--probably most--people, the reality of those choices are
not usually acknowledged consciously, at least not on a daily basis.
Such people live according to habit, and exist within choices given
to them through mainstream media and educational systems, economic
necessity, and immediate need satisfaction. Taking responsibility
for the more fundamental levels of choice is thus a "radical"
act, if we understand the word "radical" as referring
to the core or fundamental meaning of something.
To fully be a human being is to take full responsibility for one's
part in the co-creation of the world. This requires that we recognize
that the social world is "constructed," that all of the
meanings and symbols of our lives, have been created by one person
or another at some point in history. It also means that those meanings
and understandings can be changed. The world of humanly-constructed
symbols and meanings is held in place day to day by mutual agreement,
whether conscious or unconscious. Therefore, in a very real sense,
the whole world is created new every day, and every day is a new
opportunity to re-create the world in line with a new vision, a
higher vision, a better vision.
Image: Exhibit at Forum
is thus possible to envision a new world being born out of seeds
nurtured since the beginning of time, a world of liberation, of
peace, of freedom, of universally celebrated human dignity and rights.
(This is not an abstract vision.
To read about it being played out in cities all over the world,
Such a vision is made real by celebrating the highest dimensions
of the human potential, and striving to realize that potential in
each of our lives and in the life of the world.
The word "topia" expresses the shared process of realizing
the highest dimensions of the human potential, and co-creating a
world of liberation, compassion, peace, freedom and universally
celebrated human dignity and rights.
Topia is derived from the common word "utopia." "Utopia"
literally means "nowhere," or "no place." It is derived from the
Greek "ou" meaning "not," and "top(os)" meaning "a place." The word
was coined by Sir Thomas More to describe the imaginary ideal society
in his novel of the same name. Since then, utopia has come to be
used as a generic word for any ideal society. The word "topia" is
derived by removing the "ou" from utopia--instead of the utopian
"nowhere," the idea of topia implies that we begin realizing our
ideals here and now. To be "topian" is to act as if the
world we envision as ideal already exists and we are among its first
The goal of the "topian" is to tip the balance between the world
of our ideal thoughts and dreams and the three-dimensional world
that we usually call "reality." This is not to say that human beings
have a limitless ability to shape the world, though we don't know
exactly where the boundary lies between what we can change and what
we have to accept. We are constrained by our bodies, though we are
just beginning to tap the power of our minds to heal and prevent
illnesses and to find states of being that confer great contentment,
creativity, and compassion. The human social environment, since
we created it in the first place, should be particularly susceptible
to change. We conceived the world as it is, and therefore we have
the ability to reconceive and to recreate it in accordance with
a deeper and better vision.
person has their own conception of the ideal world, and therefore
of topia, of how their ideal can be made real. If our vision of
a just and good world is inclusive
of everyone, then in building our notion of topia we have to
take into account--or at least create space for--the topias (the
ideal dreams) of everyone else. If we do so, we conceive the broadest
possible form of topia, a universal topia-- a truly democratic conception
of ideal reality.
at the "End of History," But At the Beginning
longer the view we take of history, the more myopic becomes the
view that we are its high point, or end, and that human beings have
no potential for further evolution. If we take a longer view, and
put human history squarely in its place relative to the rest of
the history of the universe, we find that human existence, let alone
recorded history, is a recent event. "The world is very old," as
astronomer Carl Sagan reminded us in The Dragons of Eden,
"and human beings are very young."
Sagan illustrated the relative age of the universe compared to the
youth of our species in an a"cosmic calendar" analogy in which the
"fifteen-billion-year lifetime of the universe (or at least its
present incarnation since the Big Bang) [is] compressed into the
span of a single year." In the resulting cosmic calendar:
Earth does not condense out of interstellar matter until early
September; dinosaurs emerge on Christmas Eve; flowers arise
on December 28th; and men and women originate at 10:30 p.m.
on New Year's Eve. All of recorded history occupies little
more than a second."
the historical perspective of Sagan's cosmic calendar, we can see
that the human species is in the midst of its early childhood. We
are in fact recently evolved from earlier life forms. Further, evolution
is an ongoing process. It is continual, and we are part of it. Just
as it would be unwise to pass judgment on the potential of individual
human beings on the basis of their performance as small children,
so it is naive to speak of limits to the human potential while the
species is still in its infancy. Our world has not always been this
way; it need not always be so. From that perspective arises the
promise of topia.
topian vision is grounded in a single value, universal compassion,
which forms the basis for a broader social and political philosophy.
Universal compassion, or the Golden Rule, is an ethic that has been
adopted by all major religions, and has been suggested as the basis
for an interreligious, transdenominational,
compassionate worldview can be a moral compass for the modern age,
in contrast with authoritarian conservatism and postmodern relativism.
The logic of compassion requires unconditionality, respect, empathy
and altruism, and in turn, provides the basis for a political orientation
of toleration, civility, respect for human rights, nonviolence and community.