Imagine?

This has risen to the topical with the Beatles documentary, but it’s something I’ve been mulling over for a a while now. It’s kind of fascinating (and self-absorbed?) to witness the way my opinions on unchanging works of art change over time. It’s been most obvious with works of literature, simply because they require a solitary investment of time and attention. My most obvious and often-shared example is Madame Bovary, with a titular character I had no sympathy for in my teens, but felt I understood in my twenties. Who knows what I’d think of her now – probably that she should stop looking for happiness in other people. My reaction to Our Town changed dramatically over time, from the simple, old-fashioned little slice of Americana I took it for in middle school, to a dark commentary on society at 30, to what I now view as a deep, Buddhish, philosophical delve into the gorgeous evanescence and suffering of human existence. It has one of my favorite exchanges ever – one that sounded kind of stupid to me as a child. I’m sure you know it – when Emily, witnessing a distinctively unspecial, boring moment of her life is exasperated by the inability of the living to appreciate what is right in front of them.

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

“No. Saints and poets, maybe … they do some.”

Our Town, Thornton Wilder, Act III

It’s less common for me to dramatically change my feelings towards a song, but it has happened, and Lennon songs have evoke this change at least twice, with Revolution (blame Buddhism) and, more recently, Imagine.

Imagine is still not a favorite. I find it a bit boring musically (though at the right, vulnerable moment, the chorus can choke me up), and I do think there’s a big chunk missing between imagine and join us and the world will be as one, but I see the value in it now, thanks in large part to the police abolition movement.

What drew me to the concept of the possibility of police abolition was listening to the MPD150 report, on the history of Minneapolis police brutality and, most eye-opening for me, the repeated failed attempts at reform. I started to think abolition was as viable an option as continuing to support this corrupt, white/cis/male/wealth-supremacist system. With SURJ guidance, I facilitated conversations with White folks on the idea of police abolition, large chunks of which were focused on imagining a police-free world. It was not easy for me to facilitate what I initially felt was a waste of time.

As usual, I need to back up to my childhood to explain myself here (just the facts, folks; it was what is was). I have always said I have a poor imagination (mollified slightly in recent years to “a poor visual imagination”). I wasn’t born this way – is anyone? It was a conscious choice – a reaction to a parent who held illogical, magical, and negative ideas about the world. I didn’t want to hurt people or blame others like he did, so I chose to see things exactly as they actually are. An impossible goal, I know now, but it made my life a lot more manageable than his had been. The downside is that I suppressed quite a bit of creativity and imagination in order to accomplish this. What good was imagining, anyway? What did it accomplish? WTF, John Lennon?

If you can dream it, you can be it.

Nah, I still think that’s bullshit. But let’s look at the converse: if you can’t dream it, you can’t be it. I don’t know if that’s true, either, but it gets me close to my point. We think we know what the world is. We think we know what is possible. We really don’t. We’re circumscribed by what we know of history, of life as it is, of current scientific and philosophical and psychological theory. But imagination is essential for progress. I’m not talking about big P progress – better, stronger, faster – but little p progress – more just, more loving, more equitable. The Chalice and The Blade was revolutionary because it proposed the idea that women-run societies were not only possible, but created space for a different and better way of life. The Pride movement and AIDS activism were revolutionary not because they showed us other ways of having sex, but because they showed us a different way to create community and care, and enjoy life outside of the hetero-normative, nuclear family line most of us had been fed for centuries. Enslaved Americans who escaped, and plenty who didn’t, had to imagine a life that they had never seen – one their parents and friends had never seen – and were willing to risk death and torture to move toward the world of their imagination. Dr. Kitty Oliver, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement in Florida had only ever interacted with one White person in her life when she attended the Beatles concert in 1964 which the band insisted be de-segregated. She had to imagine that she would be safe and respected by Whites in a world where she never had been. Racial justice activists today have to imagine a world in which White supremacy does not dominate every aspect of our politics and culture. Climate activists imagine a world beyond resource extraction and human and animal exploitation.

I hadn’t thought of it as essential before, but now I truly do. If a world without capitalism is just a world of deprivation and boredom, why would anyone was to dismantle it? If you can’t imagine a safe world in which police don’t exist, they police abolition is synonymous with chaos. If you can start to imagine it, you can start to figure out what is necessary in order to make that world possible: an economic system in which everyone can live with dignity; community spaces where people mix with folks that are different from them; freedom to live as your true self without prejudice; access to the psychological and spiritual powers of nature; neighbors looking out for each other; support systems for people with mental or physical illnesses; an education system that recognizes and celebrates difference, that takes responsibility for past crimes and abuse and works to make amends for them … fill in the blanks. Whether you ultimately decide that humanity is up to the task, you now have an idea of the foundation that could create an ecosystem in which we wouldn’t need police or an inherently abusive economy.

And then you can start working towards that.

I get it when people dismiss Imagine as hippie bullshit (or hypocritical hippie bullshit). I did for years. But I think we were all missing a few things. Imagining is a first step towards change. If change matters to you, you carry on from there. Secondly, Lennon was an artist. You can call him a hypocrite; I doubt he’d care. But the artist brings beauty and ideas into the world. If they choose to materially engage as well, great. There are many roles, so many roles available to those of us who want to connect and contribute. I like the (very general) options laid out by a recent speaker in my socially engaged Buddhist training program:

  • Block (get in the way of injustice – block a pipeline, protest at the Capital, stop traffic)
  • Build (create policy, form activist groups, talk to people about the issue)
  • Be (make art, make food, make people feel valued)

All of those Bs start with imagination – yours, or someone else’s if your well is a bit dry. All you need is love, right? haha. No, seriously. I’m there. I AM THERE, FRIENDS. Love and the courage to let that love guide you. It’s the hardest fucking thing in the world, but it may also be the truest. It’s near the end of the year, so I’ll leave you with that – possibly infuriating, possibly comforting – opinion.

Be excellent to each other. *e-kisses*

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