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In praise of imagination

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SidneyCarton Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Feb-05-09 02:42 PM
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In praise of imagination
Some time ago, Mrs. Carton was an advisor to a girls youth group at Church. In one of their activities, several random items, such as a tennis racket, were given to the girls to be used as props in a skit. My wife was surprised at the difficult which the girls, (ages 12-16) had in improvising with these items (such as pretending that the racket was a canoe paddle, etc. The items were simply what they appeared to be, and nothing more could be done with them. This difficulty in pretending leads one to wonder at the future of a most neglected and oft derided human characteristic: our imagination.

At the risk of sounding anachronistic, and elitist, there seems to be a worrisome trend away from imagination in our society. One can see this in the profusion of reality television, the idolization by children of celebrities for their mere fame and wealth, and in a general skepticism which characterizes those who enjoy certain kinds of literature or film as jobless virgins living in their mothers basements. In so many cases, the creative impulse, the imaginative mind, the willingness to fantasize is derided, mocked, ignored or considered impractical to cultivate. This is not to say that imagination is wholly vacant from modern society, one need only look at the proliferation of blogs (such as the one you are currently reading) or the various films on YouTube in order to realize that many people are still willing to dream, but these dreams are heavily dependent on technology and an audience. Were the internet to vanish tomorrow and return us to an isolated state limited to the materials on hand, would we still be able to imagine?

Lest this be seen as the mere ramblings of some codger who cant deal with the sight of all those pesky kids with their i-pod thingies stuck in their ears) and who yearns for the good old days when one played with cans, sticks and string, (Im 26 and use an MP3 player almost daily) I would argue that imagination contributes more to society than talking mice, rock and roll and an infinite amount of Harry Potter fan fiction. Indeed, imagination is the very foundation of a vibrant, vital society.

Imagination is the foundation of democracy. For the Founding Fathers to have even considered independence from the British Crown, they had to be able to imagine an independent United States. The Constitution is the result of learned men taking the imagined states and governments of Montesquieu and Rousseau and adapting them into an imagined framework for the Nation in which am writing this post. Every movement for social justice, be it Abolitionism, Suffrage, Progressivism, The Civil Rights Movement, Peace activism, etc is based in the hopes of men and women who are able to imagine a better, more just world than the one in which they currently live.

Imagination is the foundation of technology. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, J. Robert Oppenheimer and countless others certainly had brilliance, learning and immense understanding of their respective fields, but they also had the ability to think outside of the box to imagine new ways of doing things, making things and causing things to occur. Certainly these ideas and imaginings have not come without consequences, but without imagination, invention would be impossible, for even the most common-sense of inventions requires the imagination to see how a commonplace object might be applied differently.

Imagination is the foundation of faith. Im sure some may take umbrage at that statement, for the implication is that religion is nothing more than fantasy, as I am neither an Atheist, nor and Anti-Theist, I make no such argument. But as faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1) it stands to reason that imagination is necessary in order to believe in things one cannot see. For example, I cannot see the afterlife, I have absolutely no empirical evidence to support its existence, much less tell me what it is like. While certain descriptions given by religious sources give me impressions of what it might be like, without my own imagination to allow me to fill in the details, and give such descriptions meaning to me, they are ultimately unhelpful, regardless of their accuracy.

Imagination is the foundation of tolerance. There is an old adage that one cannot understand a person until one has walked a mile in their shoes. Yet in order to do this, we must be able to imagine, for there is no way in which we can perfectly replicate the conditions of any of our fellow beings. In doing so, we learn empathy for the poor, the suffering, the lonely and the depressed. We learn to respect those who disagree with us, and to accept that our own point of view is not the only one in the universe, nor does it have a monopoly on truth. In short, imagination allows us to relate, however awkwardly to the people around us.

While these are the virtues of imagination, I cannot overlook the vices of this characteristic as well. As the saying goes, the sleep of reason produces monsters. And such it is when our imaginations run unchecked. From such imbalance come paranoia, witch-hunts and various other dangerous and pernicious ills. Yet just as dangerous and perhaps even more harmful is the suppression of, or lack of any imagination at all. From such a mindset come the cynic, the ideologue and the narcissist, whose actions are characterized by their inability to imagine anything beyond their own observations, or whose imaginings are severely limited by the dogma of their own ideologies. Such a lack of imagination proves the greatest hindrance to both personal and collective progress toward any goal, as those who cannot see, or have no vision, demand that everyone else shut their eyes as well.

For all its problems, our ability to imagine has been one of the forces which have impelled us forward as a people. When encouraged and given rein, though tempered with reason, it has brought us wonderful things, when suppressed it has made us suffer. It, perhaps more than even our opposable thumbs, has made us who we are, and it gives us our greatest possibilities for moving forward. For without imagination, the questions of global warming, population growth and energy shortages will remain without a solution.
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