When my oldest friend was overseas volunteering, she called me, frustrated, and said one of the most profound things she ever said to me in our long friendship: “The people we are trying to help have too little imagination. They can’t imagine life to be better than what they’ve experienced, and so they can’t understand why we want to bring change.”
I’ve thought about this often. Too little imagination seems to be at the core of many disagreements, especially these days. I thought about it again in hearing our pastor’s sermon from this past Sunday, titled ‘Prophetic Imagination,’ in which he talked about Advent as a time to employ our imaginations to better comprehend the wild and wonderful (and sometimes terrifying) possibilities of life with God. Of course, Advent is not the only time to do this; how can we muster any hope for the future unless we imagine possibilities beyond our present circumstances?
As we end this strange, tumultuous year, I thought it would be good to draw some attention to this idea. As Catherine O’Hara’s character in Home Alone vociferates, “THIS IS CHRISTMAS! THE SEASON OF PERPETUAL HOPE!”
We start by imagining possibilities bigger and better than the outcomes we fear.
Sound a little naive? Like a Sesame Street dictum? Imagination gets a bad rap with grownups, as if the things we imagine have no value, or if those things can never be real because they came out of our heads. But we know this is ridiculous. Inventors imagine inventions before they become household necessities; chefs imagine tastes before serving them to guests. Imagination is the seedling of robust creative thought. If we consider imagination to be a basic life-skill, one that enables us to think beyond ourselves and the status quo, more imagination might just be the ticket to solving quite a few problems. This is true for both our personal lives and our communal lives.
Personally, as I close out this year, and reflect on what went well, what I wish went differently, and what I hope for with next year, I remember listening to a speaker at a vocational seminar ask a bold question:
If you could do anything, knowing that you couldn’t fail, what would you do?
The audacity of this question still hits me. It requires imaginative thought I rarely allow myself to experience. So much in life feels limiting. So much seems to emphasize the many reasons why I can’t do one thing or another, whether it is lack of credentials or experience, or physical limitations, or family responsibilities, or simply a lack of self-esteem. Heaping these limitations on our psyches enforces apathetic habits, and eventually we cease to even concoct hopes and plans, let alone live them out. But so many of these obstacles are imaginary, which begs the question: If our imaginations can function so well for things we won’t do, what would happen if we reapplied our imaginations toward all of the things we could do? It’s a little scary to think about, like discovering a hidden superpower.
What will you do with this superpower? What does it mean to have it? For me, it means recognizing that, with creativity, patience, and elbow grease, I can probably do a lot more than I let myself believe. Given some time and focus to generate alternatives, I can figure out how to make money working from home with a new baby, or maybe of even start a new business, or launch new innovative initiatives to help our city, or inspire others to join a team, or produce useful, viral content, or live uninhibited by doubt…who knows! Maybe none of this will happen, but what we can know for sure is that they definitely won’t happen if I don’t imagine the possibilities in the first place.
As a community, we likewise can employ imaginations toward building a more harmonious 2017. 2016, we can agree, has been marred by nasty and widespread divisions which, it could be argued, come down to a failure to imagine life in the shoes of another. How much effort have we put into creatively asking questions of people outside our spheres? How often, or not, have we sought common ground, rather than dismiss fellow humans for viewpoints different than our own? Again, this might sound Sesame-esque, but these fundamentals have clearly been neglected.
A friend of mine recently asked me how to fix the country. I told him it would mean a return to nuance. By this, I meant that we as a population need to rediscover habits we’ve lost, namely appreciating that most situations are more complex than surface level, recognizing that social media soundbites aren’t helping anyone, and most importantly, deferring judgment given the likelihood that we might just be wrong, or at least ill-informed. All of these habits will require sufficient imagination to see a world in the future free, or at least partially so, from the fear-mongering and hate-flinging reality in which we live.
So is this too much to ask? I don’t think so. Imagination costs nothing. We all have the resource available, whether or not we exercise it regularly. So let’s take up the challenge, and make our days a little more merry and bright.