“I can’t imagine how you feel.”
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to…”
—lose a child
—nurse your mother through dementia
—be deserted by your spouse
Actually, I can imagine it. I really can. I may not know how you feel but I can certainly imagine it. Imagining it is the only way I can muster the compassion, empathy and identification with your suffering that allows me to offer you comfort and solace in your time of trial.
Imagination is not only at the root of all art and religion, but it also provides the foundation upon which all true human relationship is built. Even in strictly utilitarian business transactions devoid of any deep personal interchange, the capacity to imagine and identify with the other’s interests is what allows for fruitful, mutually satisfying negotiations.
So please, let us be done with the kind of well-meaning but essentially trumped-up, misplaced humility of claiming we can’t imagine our way into the life of our friend or loved one. This assumption serves no purpose other than to (inadvertently) increase the sense of isolation and despair they feel in the wake of their tragedy.
What I want and need in my pain is for you to bring all the imagination you can muster in feeling it right along with me. Please, please, please: Bring it on!
I need you to share in my suffering just as I would try to share in yours. Surely you can see and identify with my pain, because if you can’t, why are you here trying to console me? The attempt would be rather feeble and useless, wouldn’t it?
Absent the kind of moral imagination required to feel compassion for others, to identify with the pain they are feeling, we may as well all stay in our rooms when tragedy strikes, stewing in our inability to reach across a chasm separating our individual experiences. What do humans tend to do instead? We almost instinctively come together, flying in from across the country to hold each other, put on water for tea, cook up a pot of soup. Then we commence listening, if need be, long into the crazy-making night as our friends or family members try to make some sense of their fate.
Back in 1967, William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner brought him both the Pulitzer Prize and a veritable flood of scathing criticism from those who considered it presumptuous and inappropriate for him to imaginatively inhabit the mind and background of the black slave Nat Turner. Turner led a historic revolt in 1831 that resulted in mass murder of both whites and blacks and his own subsequent death by hanging.
Styron’s largely sympathetic treatment of Turner nevertheless raised the question of whether a white Southerner should even dare write from within the experience of a black slave. To which the only rational response, it seems to me, would fall along the following lines:
If all our imaginative storytelling, all our reaching out to understand the life and times, loves and losses, of another person depends on us literally sharing their same experience, race or nationality, or the same type of loss, then fiction is impossible, compassion is impossible, any reaching out to embrace others in human solidarity in all but the most superficial terms is impossible.
If we negate the capacity of the imagination to feel intensively if not almost wholly into the life of another, we should commence to root out all fiction from our libraries and burn it in a pile labeled “Presumption.” Who are we to think, as writers or merely fellow humans, that we can identify closely with another in their pains, heartaches and longings? (Dear Reader: Please imagine a long audible sigh here…)
Truly, in our imagination lies our communion, our relationship, our shared humanity above and beyond all labels, ethnicities, and experiences. To be human is to suffer, and in our suffering, we can all be as one, shorn of false barriers that would keep us as the islands the poet John Donne knew us not to be.
The contemporary novelist Ian McEwan addressed this theme in a soulful reflection on the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks that is worth another read a dozen years later:
“Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.”
And in closing, similar thoughts, differently rendered, from the early 19th century romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:
“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”
Ian McEwan’s meditation on 9/11 can be found at:
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