Where are the Visionaries?


If you look up the word 'visionary' on dictionary.com this is what it will give you:


  1. Given to or characterized by fanciful not presently workable or unpractical ideas, views or schemes; a visionary enthusiast.

  2. Given to or concerned with seeing visions.

  3. Belonging to or seen in a vision.

  4. Unreal; imaginary: visionary evils.

  5. Purely idealistic or speculative; impractical; unrealizable: a visionary scheme.

  6. Of , pertaining to, or proper to a vision.

  7. A person of unusually keen foresight.

  8. A person who sees visions.

  9. A person who is given to audacious, highly speculative or impractical ideas of schemes; dreamer.


One can't help but wonder why the definition in number 7 isn't the first definition, the one most used, most relevant. One may think having put this definition so low in the ranking it really doesn't have much value, that the term visionary isn't taken very seriously. Could this be indicative of a larger problem, something, perhaps happening in our society right now?


I asked myself who I thought were visionaries. The first person I came up with was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He had a vision (a dream, as he called it) amongst rampant persecution and he orchestrated an alternative way to live a life, preached about it despite all the animosity toward him and his philosophy. I think many people thought his vision wasn't very practical, wasn't very possible, but in January of 2009, we witnessed that dream, that vision come to fruition. So there's one, MLK. Picasso too was a visionary. Who knew life could be interpreted in shapes? What sort of mind creates something like that? What was the point of that? Was it practical? Did it do anyone a bit of good? Yes it did and does do the world some good because it teaches people to “see” differently, and learning how to see differently means stepping out of yourself, out of your own mindset and embracing someone else's. This “open mindedness” is the stuff of empathy, of appreciation, of change.


One might even say a visionary, a good one, sparks something in others and a “movement” is created. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., it was the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of Picasso, it was Cubism. This “movement” calls an entire collection of people to jump on the bandwagon of the visionary, to think and create and connect with one another by the sharing of ideas.


James Joyce, another visionary. Who would think to write down the jibberish the mind churns? The “stream of consciousness” bandwagon included writers like Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and Henry Miller. Our minds are not refined like a Jane Austen novel. The first thoughts, untethered, and unfiltered, are alive with hunger and energy; they contain the raw us and illuminate the very root of emotion, intention, and action. But then again, Austen too was a visionary. Her vision bandwagon said Women Have Brains Too, women can challenge men by intellect and spunk alone.


Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez...visionaries. Who says the dead can't be a character? Who says people can't go around eating dirt? Was that practical? Visionaries know we are not only about practicality; we are not only about paying the bills, mowing the lawn, feeding the children. We have entire worlds inside us; some people have foresight into those worlds. This is why we should listen, this is why we should read, this is why we should create. All artists, all creators must be visionaries. Vincent Van Gogh once said, “it is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper understanding.” That deeper understanding is called vision, and if you are rightly close to your work, this naturally develops and leads the way.


I think now, more than ever in our overanalyzed, overpopulated, overstimulated existence, we need visionaries. We need people who can lead, who can come up with better ways to live (not just faster ways, better ways), who make us see life differently, who challenge us, who make us less afraid.


I read this essay to a writer's forum I used to run and asked the audience who they thought were modern day visionaries. One person said Barack Obama. Another Al Gore. Another the people at Whole Foods. No one had mentioned a contemporary writer or artist or musician. This worried me.


Why is definition number 7 so low on the totem pole? Is it because society values efficiency, practicality and economy more than anything else? Is it because things have become so complicated that no one person can truly make a difference? Or has the energy of creativity become less refined and more dispersed so that we have many facebook pages and websites with a smattering of ideas but no one prominent visionary, no one Gaugin or Ghandi or Woolf. Or are these visionaries embedded in the communities, making small change here and there, speaking their voices at open mics or by way of blogs or publishing books with small presses, or selling their paintings on the street, or under the discerning eye of academia? If this is the case, has the true artist, the visionary become marginalized and are we afraid to admit that to ourselves and do something about it?

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