Imagination During a Pandemic

I went for a short drive a couple mornings ago to get out of the house, which, due to quarantine, was something I hadn’t done in quite a while. I was listening to NPR as I pulled onto the highway.

It was the NPR show On Point with host Meghna Chakrabarti, and she was talking about what we can learn from the authors of pandemic literature. She was interviewing three best selling authors. It was nearly halfway over when I turned on the radio, but I hadn’t yet caught the names of the authors she was interviewing.

As I tuned in, a man named Tom was talking about the political and religious scenarios in his book and I thought it sounded fairly familiar. Quickly I thought, Is this…Tom Perrotta…of the book, The Leftovers? No way.

Because if it was Tom Perrotta, it would be very strange. I just finished watching the final season of the TV adaptation of his book with Sarah, a show that has been completed for over three years now. What are the odds that I hear an interview with a screenwriter of the show I just watched, a show that hasn’t aired in three years?

But indeed it was Tom Perrotta, along with authors Geraldine Brooks and Lawrence Wright. The interview was fascinating to listen to.

The interview briefly touched on the concept of imagination. I happen to have been thinking about imagination recently and how important it is for moving forward successfully in this country, whether it be related to how we move ahead during this pandemic, how we think through major societal changes like police reform, or even how we continue to assess how we should respond to climate change.

Science and facts and statistics are extremely important, but they are limited in what they can do for us. As Tom mentioned in the interview, science is helpful and we obviously need it. But right now, science mostly helps us know what the problem is, but it doesn’t really know how to fix the problem.

All this reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

Albert Einstein, On Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, 1931, p. 49

Pandemics reveal who we are. A pandemic is a mirror that reflects right back onto us, both individually and as a society. Do we like what we see? Are we responding in selfish ways or are we thinking of others?

Geraldine Brooks mentioned an entire community that self-quarantined during the bubonic plague. Their decision to do so saved countless lives. But that community came to that decision together, knowing that they were sacrificing themselves for the betterment of the whole, and they died together doing so.

Tom Perrotta mentioned how there’s a large division of people who just want things to go back to the way things were. We liked the way things were. We want it to be like that again. We want to feel like things are “normal.” There are also people who recognize we are living in a new world, a changed one, and that we must move forward. But that urge to just want things to go back to the way things were is very strong. It’s understandable.

This is not the first time our country has gone through something this dramatic or traumatic. But in the past our country came together, imperfect as it was, to take steps to try and reinvent itself as best as it knew how. To do that takes imagination, and that’s what we need right now. We need more imagination in this country. We need to hear it from our leaders. We need to encourage it as a society.

Meghna talked about how it’s hard to imagine if this pandemic is just the beginning. If this is not the end of it, perhaps not even the middle of it, then we are going to need a lot of imagination to think about how we move forward. And that asks a lot of us. But that is why we need leaders with good imaginations, ones that can dream. If there’s one speech that people know from Martin Luther King Jr., it’s a speech with its entire premise built on having a dream. We can think back to JFK and our dreams of going to the moon, FDR and the New Deal.

Who in politics dreams like that anymore?

The thing is, fear can interfere with the health of our imaginations. And unfortunately, our country’s political system has used fear as its currency for a long time now, and it has helped corrupt imagination into conspiracy.

Fear and superstition hijack our imaginations and end up creating entire sinister realities behind the events going on in the world. It’s a form of denial. We are allowing our imaginations to be hijacked by fear and superstition, which gives place to believe in or even propose conspiracy theories, even very unlikely or crazy sounding ones.

This leads to how we behave as a society. In the past we’ve used imagination to kind of reinvent ourselves. After 9/11 though, Cheney and others used fear to help influence people’s imagination to convince this country that we needed to go to war in Iraq. We needed to torture people. And since then it feels like our imagination in this country has been infiltrated and used to propose all sorts of strange conspiracies.

I understand the urge to want things to go back to the way things were, but for us to move forward we have to change our perspective a bit. We are very good at denial, and many are simply allowing denial to prevent us from dreaming. It’s the easiest path, and it’s the lazy one.

Don’t let fear corrupt your imagination and turn you down the path of conspiracy and tribalism. We can shift the perspective from denial or even victimhood to opportunity. We as a society can challenge each other to dream big. We get to write the story of this moment in history. The pen is in our hand.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

In fact, that’s much of what the Black Lives Matter movement is simply asking from us as a country: dream with us, and together lets write a new story! There have been systems in our country built around oppression and racism. The police force in this country is one of them. It needs to change. We need to imagine a future together where that isn’t the case.

If you read that and get angry or upset, then I encourage you to use your imagination as we listen to the stories of those asking for us to dream big.

Again, this pandemic has been a mirror. Do we like what we see? If we don’t, what are we going to do about it?

This is an opportunity to reinvent America. We can do it in profound ways, but we can also screw it up like we have in the past. As we think about the elections in November, we need to think about choosing politicians who have good imaginations. We need to look to people who inspire us to dream big.

Who are you when the crisis comes? What is the story you are writing? Do you see yourself as a victim of this time? Are you living in denial? Or are you allowing this time to be an opportunity to invigorate your imagination. It’s hard work, and maybe you don’t currently have the capacity to dream in that way. That’s ok. Look to the people who are dreaming big, the ones with the huge ideas. Learn from them. Be inspired by them.

That’s how we’ll grow and move forward in this country instead of constantly living into the fear and tribal politics of our time. We divide ourselves in this country through it. And if there’s ever a time for a country to come together, it’s during a pandemic. Any lack of cohesion or unity can be very costly.

Do we love our neighbors and fellow citizens? Our desire and attempts to use our imaginations might just answer that question. So let’s dream together, for the good of us all!

Published by Andrew

a ragamuffin dad planting some sequoias

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