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A Plea for Imagination

by Joan L. Cannon

George Eliot said (in Middlemarch) "…we do not expect people to be moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."

I have had those words pinned to my bulletin board for perhaps 20 years. Of late, it seems that their significance is multiplying day by day. Surely, there is a real danger to what we like to call civilization when so many people appear to have lost the ability to imagine.

Cruelty is a quality that is not understood by nonhuman creation. A cat feels nothing except the excitement of the chase, and thus releases the mouse as often as it can for the fun of catching it again, unless the cat was hungry and decided to satisfy its appetite. Wolves need not consider the terror of the prey and its parent as they circle the buffalo calf and cut it off from its dam.

Men, however, have the capacity to be distressed by the pain and horror of the victim. There was a time when in western cultures it was an anomaly to see gratuitous brutality. Laws are on the books providing punishment for ill treatment even of animals. Most of us have been reared in a tradition that makes us feel shame for what we term the "excesses" of zealots and megalomaniacs. War is horrifying to nearly everyone.

It is the word "nearly" that appears so often to be implicit in the daily news and reports of new video and computer games and lists of movie titles. From suicide bombings that we attribute to an insane fanaticism to the growing market for pay-for-view "extreme fighting," some sort of virus seems to be infecting a larger and larger population. The recent trampling of a clerk in a store by a mob of self-involved materialists is only one of far too many other examples.

Is there any way to reeducate our children when the adults appear to be the source of this behavior? Tradition in the psychiatric community has held that there are childhood clues to later sociopathic behavior in such activities as animal cruelty. What has happened to our ability to foresee the callousness of adults and its dangers?

It is a given that some people can afford to be more sensitive, even craven, than others. As long as we are omnivores, someone has to do the butchering, and those who do must learn to live with any after-effects of killing for a living, or they will go mad. That does not excuse the same imperviousness in so many of the population.

Modern human beings need to continue to progress along the evolutionary chain, not fall back into the prehistoric mindsets required for survival. We need to use the human ability to imagine, if only to learn how to fear something that may not yet be evident, if we are to prevent it. Above all, we need to be able to imagine not only what it would be like to be a victim, a sufferer, or without hope. We have to revive the childish world view that allows for seeking out beauty and fun and affection so that we can envision a better world.

©2008 Joan Cannon for SeniorWomen.com

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