I’m constantly surprised by the lack of imagination with so many people. This even includes many intelligent people who I know are able to think outside-the-box and to consider alternative perspectives. But imagination is a genuine talent, separate from intelligence.
I guess I’m surprised because I take imagination for granted. It is a talent that either I was born with or I learned young. As long as I can remember, I was always creative and curious. I have many other inadequacies and deficiencies, but a lack of imagination hasn’t tended to be a failing of mine.
Imagination is one of the most frustrating talents to possess. Cognitive imagination is to conceive of other possibilities and emotional imagination is to perceive other experiences. I’m about equally proficient in both at this point in my life, although my natural ability is more in the direction of emotional imagination.
I have a natural instinct for empathy which can be problematic, as it relates to hyper-sensitivity and some social anxiety, and hence contibuting to my introversion, depression, and certain anti-social tendencies. I can’t watch the news without the experience of complete strangers being emotionally or even viscerally real to me, as if I’m there with the people being shown. There is a paper thin boundary surrounding my emotional experience.
When I imagine possibilities, they are real to me while I imagine them. A possibility isn’t just an abstract thought. I build my imaginings out of my personal experience. The ability to reconstruct one’s experience into new forms is something I couldn’t begin to explain. I’m not sure how I go about doing this. It simply comes naturally to me. I normally don’t think about it. My imaginings just happen in the way lifting my arm just happens. The intent and the result are so nearly simultaneous as to feel seamless.
The one thing that is hard for me to imagine is not being the way I am. I constantly live in a world of possibilities and empathy. The type of person who is strongly and narrowly focused, who is practical and simply sees the world “as it is”, such a person is almost beyond my imaginative capacities. It is as if I don’t even live in the same world as those people, and they’d probably say the same thing about me.
My imagination has been honed over my lifetime. I’ve gained a fair amount of experience of the world and even moreso I’ve gained knowledge. Those are two central factors that are beyond imagination as mere talent. Anyone can gain experience and knowledge and by doing so expand the range of their imagination. But few people ever get around to going beyond the experience and knowledge they gained when they were young.
Most people just know what they know. This is typically constrained by what they’ve been taught and told. Even their experience has been constrained by the social world they are part of. Few ever venture outside of this safe zone of certainty and familiarity, even just in imagination, much less in actuality.
To venture into the unknown is a risk. I’m not so much thinking of the risk to life and limb. I’m more considering the risk of change and of being changed. There are certain experiences that can’t be forgotten, certain ideas that can’t be unthought, certain possibilities that can’t be unimagined. Once this happens, you can’t return to what you left as if everything is the same. Once something becomes real in your experience or your mind, it isn’t easily made unreal again.
To even just think of a possibility, even without seriously imagining it, is dangerous. You begin to give it the force of thought. You’ve welcomed it into your mindspace and it may not be so easily dislodged. As I see it, that was the power of the Enlightenment. New ideas and imaginings were introduced. They acted like mind viruses and transformed the people who came into contact with them. Once you have the notion of freedom and independence, how can you go back to drudgery and oppression?
We face a similar era of new radical thought. We are at a time when people are more seriously considering what democracy means, what it could or should mean. Many who fear change have gone to great lengths to contain this contagion. Once people genuinely imagine the possibilities of democracy, how can they go back to being satisfied with mere voting? Once people have felt deep in their gut the possibility of self-governance, why would they ever again be satisfied with being ruled by an elite? Once people begin to take seriously the freedom part of the free market ideal, can they ever again be contented with capitalism and corporatism?
Imagination isn’t easy. But sometimes conditions are just right that the imaginations are sparked even for the unimaginative. Much of what we feel able to imagine depends on what our society tells us can be imagined. When new possibilities are in the air, the floodgates of imagination are opened. Then, instead of just a rare talent, imagination becomes a dominant force.