When our imaginations fail us

My children–and many children–have incredible imaginations.

My younger son is convinced that he has visited some canyon in South America with my mother-in-law. It sounds incredible, to hear him describe it.

My older son is petrified of the basement, because, in his mind, there are indescribable horrors down there.

They have little difficulty leaping immediately into the realm of the fantastic; indeed, I often feel like I’m running to keep up, struggling to figure out when to foster these incredible flights of fancy, and when to gently bring them back to reality.

We adults? Our imaginations get pretty rusty. We can easily fall into a habit of having to see anything, in order to believe it.

And that can be a big liability, when it comes to fighting injustice.

We have a hard time imagining that things could really be so bad. We assume that the forces against which we are arrayed are rational, and, therefore, constrained by reasonable boundaries of just and unjust.

We have a hard time contemplating irrational, capricious, ill-will, let alone horror.

And sometimes that stops us from intervening effectively.

That is certainly the case in something like genocide, as A Problem from Hell underscores repeatedly, with examples from history. People couldn’t believe survivors–they just couldn’t–because it was beyond the realm of their worst nightmares.

But our inadequate imaginations cripple us in other contexts, too.

We are prone to disbelieve the client who reports that a colleague was rude to her, because, surely, that can’t be true. We doubt a story of a system failure, because there’s no way that an organization would have a rule that illogical. We want to assume the best–in ourselves, our allies, our institutions, so we place the burden of proof on those who are asking us to suspend our disbelief.

That’s not to say that clients never get things wrong, or that some things that sound too far-fetched to be true might not, in fact, be false.

But it’s also true that history is replete with evidence that people do, in fact, act in ways contrary to their own interests, cruelly or insensibly (or both). It can happen. And those who fail to even consider that it might do so at their own peril, and the peril of others.

I met today with some advocates who told me about a story of a woman who came to ask for utility assistance who reported that she and her children had been living without any utilities for four months. Including, then, winter.

Even they, seasoned advocates with years of experience working alongside mothers in poverty, doubted her at first. I mean, who can imagine? Surviving a winter with absolutely no electricity, no heat, no lights? For four months? In Kansas City?

Their imaginations get quite a bit of exercise, since the families with whom they work struggle at the edge of survival. Still, when they accompanied the woman to her home with the groceries and other assistance they had provided, they admitted that they checked, and, yes, she has been preparing her food on a propane grill in her backyard. For months. Without heat or lights.

In response to a question about why people are so slow to believe the eyewitness testimony of those who live through real suffering, Richard Holbrooke said, “Going to a refugee camp might help. But not having gone to a refugee camp is not an excuse for not having an imagination” (p. 405). Experience on the front lines, fighting genocide, leads one to the conclusion that it is “better to trust the unprovable and be proven wrong, than the reverse” (p. 450).

Why do we have so much trouble imagining? And how do our out-of-shape imaginations impede our empathy? Why is our first instinct so often, “really?” instead of “how horrible.” How much more easily might we be able to view the world from another’s shoes–and craft the policies that would work from where they stand–if we had the ready imaginations of my under-six set?

Imagine.

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One response to “When our imaginations fail us

  1. Pingback: Sunday Evening Share: Injustice Everywhere | Thinking like a social worker

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