Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world. (Albert Einstein)
It is not moral decline, or political or religious disagreements and division, not borders, nor social strictures, which bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the world’s woes and wrongs.
It is because we all suffer, in varying degrees, from “heart” failure. We cannot, and will not, understand each other. The systemic cause of this condition: massive “Failure of Imagination.” It is the underlying culprit which seizes otherwise healthy, reasonable, educated individuals and has now developed into a raging epidemic.
If we cannot imagine others’ lives and times, we can perceive only that “they” are not like “us.” They do not think like us, may not look like us, do not follow the same rules, do not serve the same god. Republican/Democrat; Ukrainian/ Russian; Palestinian/Israelite; Transsexual/ Heterosexual; Black/ White; Vaxxer/ Anti-Vaxxer; Muslim/ Jew/ Christian; on and on the list goes, encompassing nearly everyone but our mothers, and sometimes them as well.
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The result is dehumanization, and it is the nucleus of every conflict. The “other” becomes “the enemy.” That person has transgressed, is at best misled, possibly criminal, maybe not even human.
It is an ancient story of privilege and power, but mystifyingly becoming worse in our “enlightened” age. As the stakes become higher, the gap between “them” and “us” becomes wider, allowing and encouraging misunderstanding, conflict, generating terror and destruction.
Only by employing our imaginations can we transcend our times and our own limited existence. We may know the facts of history, or of any current conflict, but that knowledge is just the beginning. Without using our imaginations, it is impossible to empathize.
The ability to imagine others’ lives connects us with those who came before us and those we now share this planet with. Eight billion stories are unfolding at this very moment, tales of struggle and redemption, of great successes and great failures, of life and death.
But too often our imaginations extend to pursue only the glamorous, to following celebrities, sports figures, politicians. We immerse ourselves in the never-ending buzz of social media, channeling our personal Amazon Wish Fulfillment Center.
Most of us are good at imaging, say, what we’d do after winning the lottery. Or how we’d use our incredible wealth and power if only we were Elon Musk, or Beyonce, or the President. But we are not as proficient at imaging a Sudanese mother trying to feed her family in a war zone, (sorry; wrong continent) or the terror of a Venezuelan immigrant fleeing his country, (tough; higher walls) the struggle of a family with a transexual child (nope; male or female) or a father’s despair after his daughter is gunned down in her kindergarten class (woah; Second Amendment rights.)
Who wants to imagine such depressing scenarios anyway? Better to flip on a “reality” show. We feed our minds a selected diet of news and viewpoints designed to nourish our already established beliefs, narrowing our world and creating a false sense of reality.
As the genesis for intolerance is “failure of imagination,” beginning there is our only hope. Tsking and reproving, judging and condemning is always counter-productive. Failing to engage leads to apathy, apathy to dislike, dislike dissolves into hatred, and hatred brews barbarism. Only by imagining other’s lives can we begin to understand, can the barrier between “them” and “us” be breeched.
Books, movies, all the arts, every means of telling humanity’s stories, can trigger our imaginations, if we’re open to it. So, instead of endlessly circling, as if playing at the “Game of Life,” collecting stars (fame,) dollar signs (money,) and hearts (romantic love,) while checking off our bucket lists and tallying our accomplishments, how about immersing ourselves in a truly fascinating game? This game enriches our lives by imagining others’ lives and utilizes our minds to reach further, toward understanding.
It is riveting. It is real. It is Life.
And if we use our imaginations to play, we all win.
Amy Lockard is a novelist, opinion journalist, and regularly writes for the Courier in Waterloo/Cedar Falls, and on staff at The Fulcrum.