Contents: UU World Back Issue

Imagination needed

by Meg Riley

Even though I experience moments of cynicism , despair, and hopelessness, my spirit is a buoyant one. I am an optimist by nature. Yet when I find myself thinking about how the religious right demands more and more from our elected officials, and how the coming years will challenge us to defend values so dear to Unitarian Universalists, I am bleak, and I notice this in my morning meditation: Part of me is drawn to the odd seduction of hopelessness, wants to relax into its arms, throw the oars off my little rowboat, and drift slowly out into the vast foggy sea. But then another voice speaks. "Imagination is a moral imperative," it says, in the sharp tone in which a parent might say for the third time, "Hang up your coat now."

I consider this. As director of the UUA 's advocacy and witness team, I am privileged to use my imagination and all of my other gifts every day at work. But, imagination as moral imperative? I remember this phrase from old ethics classes but I'm not even sure what it means exactly. To be a moral person, I must imagine?

Another familiar line comes into my mind, from Adrienne Rich's stunning journal, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics -one of my desert island books, where I've turned over and over for help. "Despair," she wrote in 1991, "when not the response to absolute physical and moral defeat, is, like war, the failure of imagination."

War as the failure of imagination? This makes sense to me. I once went to a high school and watched a series of student-written plays. The teachers had provided boxes of props to inspire the students. One class had been allowed to use the prop of a gun if they wanted; the other had not. In the class that had been allowed to use the gun, every single play, probably six of them, concluded with someone being shot. It almost became comical how that gun defined the limits of adolescent imagination in plays that otherwise bore no resemblance to each other. In the class without a gun, the endings were much more varied and interesting. This was not a sociological experiment, simply class plays, and no one but me even seemed interested in what that gun did to youths' imaginations. But I was awed by it. Multiply a gun into an army, and I can certainly see the epic crumbling of imagination.

Despair as failure of imagination makes sense to me, too, on an intuitive level. I remember a parent orientation at my daughter's preschool five years ago. The teacher, who had run the place for more than thirty years, told us that they tried to stay out of the kids' ways as much as possible and let them have about two hours uninterrupted free play each day. One anxious parent raised his hand. "But if they run out of ideas about what to play," he said, "you jump in and help them think of some, right?" I chuckled, expecting the teacher to brush away this absurd question. My own daughter, and every other three-year-old kid I'd ever known in my life as a teacher and religious educator, wouldn't run out of ideas if we never spoke to them again! But the veteran teacher responded soberly, "We are seeing a new phenomenon these past few years where kids actually are unable to think of things to play." She went on: "We link it to the absence of unstructured time in children's lives and to excessive amounts of time watching television."

To hear about the demise of children's imaginations ranked, for me, with hearing about the demise of the virgin forests. Something completely irreplaceable and precious is being lost. I have to wonder how this is connected to the increasing numbers of children who are being medicated for depression and anxiety and aggression and other mental health problems. As ever, the children are the canaries in our coalmines.

So, my prayer for each of us is that we seriously consider how to yoke our imaginations to the common good and to dedicate ourselves to finding ways to put something creative out into the world, whether it's learning Thai cooking or mentoring a child or painting or writing or creatively protesting injustice. Take seriously that you need to be alive, to be rowing your own little boat, not to be surrendering the most precious gifts you have been given-your heart's desires, your soul's longing for connection, your abilities to manifest the vision of life that is uniquely yours. No one can take that from you unless you give it to them. Hold tightly to this birthright, and dedicate your life to it.

Adapted from a UUA Washington Office e-mail bulletin sent January 20, 2005.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : Page 22-23

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