These lines from Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” caught my attention recently: “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.” Rankine’s line testifies to many things, especially the destructive powers of the imagination.Yet the imagination is also a uniquely human strength. It embodies our freedom and responsibility. Imagination helps build things: our unique style, our futures. Societies also have collective imaginations, which shape the rhetoric of politicians and success of businesses. How could the iPhone be so popular unless it somehow captured our collective imagination? How can ISIS recruit so effectively unless—in some twisted way—it speaks to what many youth imagine for themselves?
The study of liberal arts is the study of human freedom. And the study of art—literature especially—teaches us to cultivate that prime expression of freedom: our imaginations.
How do we cultivate our imagination? I’ll answer by way of story.
Ignatius of Loyola (Iggy for short) was an impressive knight—until a cannonball busted his legs. Unfortunately for the lady-killing Spaniard, the castle where he convalesced didn’t have his preferred reading: chivalric romances, stories of heroic knights and distressed damsels. To kill time, he read the only material available to him: the lives of the saints.
Like a scientist who discovers a revolutionary medicine by accident, Iggy had a breakthrough. He realized the stories of chivalry goaded him toward ‘knightly’ acts, but that fire always needed to be fed with new stories. By contrast, the stories of saints lit a subtler flame, one that fed him long after story’s details were forgotten. The romances were rooted in self-absorption of ego and its violence. The stories of saints were rooted in the deeper truths of love and peace. He’d discovered for himself the difference between the ‘real’ and ‘false imagination.’
What is the ‘false imagination?’ It’s like a sugar high: spike, crash, spike, crash. It’s like a pool of water in a used tire, sustaining no life except mosquitoes. We gorge our egos on the products of false imagination: in the false imagination, we always win the argument and slow wave like Miss America to crowds of our endless admirers. The false imagination is where we turn to distract ourselves from reality.
The ‘real imagination’ is not distraction; it is rooted in reality. It is not in service of our fears and egos. The real imagination can accept challenges. It sustains us because it imagines new forms of action when old ones break down. It can see worlds that were…well, unimaginable before.
How do we break through to the real imagination? Iggy did retain one thing from his old life: knightly discipline. It’s hard work to cultivate the ‘real imagination.’
Iggy spent time in quiet, in contemplation. Do you contemplate? Can you sit still? I find it very hard myself. Netflix is always on. Our friends are texting. Work beckons.
During contemplation, Iggy learned to pay attention to himself and the world around him. He began to discern places in himself where the false imagination was at work. He developed a series of “Spiritual Exercises” that helped others engage this process.
Must we become hermits then? Certainly not. You’re halfway there now. The liberal arts education at Goshen teaches us (professors included!) to contemplate and discern, to root out the weeds of false imagination—but only if we work at it!
Let me to speak as English professor now: literature studies imagination directly, how it struggles toward what it sees as beautiful or good, how it can become twisted and ugly.
For example, many people buy iPhones because this technology is designed to fit some imagined style. Similarly, many young people today are drawn to ideologies of violence. Some are willing to die and murder others for those ideologies. What role does the imagination play in those choices? These are urgent questions that literature can help us answer. They are problems that studying the liberal arts can help us overcome.
Our society, sometimes even our college, pushes skills and productivity. Rightly so. Work is a source of dignity. But we cannot forget that our imaginations shape the value and meaning of that dignity. Because imagination shapes the exercise of our freedom, the imagination is as real as the skills you use on the job and the money you earn.
And as Rankine demonstrates, the tragedy of the false imagination is only too real. We have two options then: 1. close our imaginations: “Too hard. Let the ‘experts’ handle things”; or 2. take responsibility for our imaginations and cultivate them.
Don’t wait for a cannonball. Begin the hard work of imagining a more meaningful life.