The Paradox of Imagination

I’m pretty sure that our imaginations are behind the majority of human-inflicted suffering.

Heartbreak? We imagine the object of our affections treating us differently than they actually do.

War? Leaders, imagining themselves in other lands, with other resources.

Religious violence? We imagine gods, and those gods, fully visualized, insist that everyone worship in one way. And anyone who doesn’t is an heretic, who must be destroyed.

Racism? Visual discrimination of any type? We imagine that physical differences have some bearing on the minds of the Other.

Rape? Attackers imagine a nonexistent permission to take whatever they want, regardless of the actual wishes of the victim.

And yet, this very quirk in our brains – our ability to see or hear something that does not exist – is the spark that ignites both innovation and art. When I’m writing music, I hear the tunes in my head before they come out. The great architects imagine the land rising up into buildings, while Tesla imagined electricity traveling over the air, for free.

So, our curse is our gift, and our gift is our curse. Hello, Pandora.

What is it about this human ability to create something and then believe in its existence? A therapist once asked me, “What’s another word for saying that something happened, when it didn’t?”    …     “Ummmm, lying?” Yes, your imagination is a sneaky little liar. It invents worlds, games, friends, progressions of notes, streams of letters that make up essays. It also invents non-existent romantic competition, turns toy guns into deadly weapons, and decides that a person who looks or sounds different from us is a threat.

When we act on our imaginations, it is because, in our minds, these lies have become a truth. An idea that didn’t exist moments ago suddenly takes on a concrete reality. My job is to help writers tell their lies – it’s what I do best. I help them make these imagined universes feel real from a sonic point of view – whether that’s about recreating a realistic environment or just conveying an emotional truth, I help them give a truthfulness to their beautiful lies.

Is it our imaginations that allow unjust regimes to flourish and linger? Do we project a core set of human values onto our leaders that aren’t actually there? It’s as though we’ve imagined that, since we chose them to lead us, they must be good, and we keep believing in this invented goodness, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The United States Congressional approval rating has been between 9 and 21 percent since 2012 and yet, we’ve re-elected just under 90 percent of our incumbents in that time.  Did we imagine the best, complain about what happened, and then just imagine the best again? Our leaders are not nobler than we are. They were just hungrier for power, and are better at imagining themselves in the driver’s seat.

This year, Detroit has imagined itself as a corporation, while corporations continued to imagine themselves as people with first amendment rights. Israel and Palestine both continued to imagine themselves as being the sole owners of Gaza. Someone in the Ukraine imagined that they were a war hero when they shot down a planeload of people, while 107 of that plane’s passengers were imagining a cure for HIV/AIDS as they flew toward a convening of their imaginations. ISIS is imagining a world scrubbed of all who disagree, while the U.S. leaders have been imagining global warming as a passing phase, and a country where the needy will finally just take care of themselves.

And me? I am imagining what it might be like to turn off my imagination. Could I simply exist, conscious of the universe, without dreaming up Buddhas and true love, boogiemen and loss? Is there some sort of shutoff valve to our imaginations, where freedom might live?

And, yet, what would we be giving up? Dreams, inventions, visions, art, science – the very things that redeem humanity’s impact on this planet. Would life be worthwhile without them?

Perhaps this dilemma is why we invented alcohol…

2 thoughts on “The Paradox of Imagination”

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