October 2022: The Dark Side of Imagination

Sometimes I find myself confronted by my own ideas that I myself don’t like.  One of these times was when I contemplated the down side of imagination.

There are probably few words that have a more universally positive connotation than
“imagination”.  I would put it in a very special category with concepts like “creativity”, “passion” or even “love”.  So what could be a dark side?

I’ve often felt that humans think too much, and that the more we get lost in cognitions the less we are present to our current experience.  Years ago I started wondering where the “tipping point” was:   when did we start finding it so difficult to live in the moment?  And then, as I often do, I started thinking about children.

An infant, theoretically, is perfect at living in the moment.  It’s probably a pretty safe bet that a 4 week old is not worrying about what’s going to happen next week, or what the future holds.  They are truly in the moment and just experiencing whatever is happening for them (warmth, cold, hunger, etc.).   One of the ways that begins to change is with imagination.

The Oxford Dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses” (bold italics added).   There is a beautiful aspect to this and this definition conjures up images of Picasso or Beethoven. But there’s also this reality:  the essence of imagination is moving away from being in the moment and into an entirely cognitive process.  Imagination may be one of the ways we most strongly differentiate from animals, and while I am sure it provides us some soaring highs, I wonder if there’s not a cost of some very serious lows.

I love the axiom that what makes us sad is not what is, but the comparison of what is to what we think should be, or could be. If we didn’t know it was possible to have a different amount of money, we would never be bothered by not having what we perceive as enough. There’s also the axiom that anything we can imagine can be achieved. The dark side is that anything we can imagine can also possibly NOT be achieved, and then we are left suffering from something that was never real in the first place.

I want to be, and continue to be, a “fan” of the idea of imagination, but I also think these reflections are hard to avoid.

September 2022: Living Like An Animal

Humans can be very arrogant in believing we are the “superior” species on this planet. I think it’s worth questioning.

Many years ago, when I lived in a country that shall not be named, I was feeling really upset because that country was bombing civilians in Iraq. I could not get it out of my mind. When I got home I took my Golden Retriever for a walk.  As we were walking I looked at him and admired that he was not agonizing about children in Iraq. Neither of us was doing anything to actually help those children, but only one of us was allowing the news to ruin our day.  And then I thought about how humans are often plagued with thoughts about mortality and death, and that can prevent us from being in the moment. But as far as I know, my Golden Retriever was not aware of his own mortality, so he could live every moment fully, and not in the context of a finite life span. While I was thinking all this, he stopped in the middle of the street to use his mouth to scratch his private parts. I started thinking that I would never have the balls to do that (no pun intended).  So if we both had an itch, he’d relieve his but I would suffer until I got to a private place where I could scratch.

So what did all my “advanced cognitive functions” get me? I could worry about things over which I had no control. I could see every moment in the context of inevitable death, and I could be self-conscious whenever I am in public. I started to question whether human existence is really the highest form of existence to which we can aspire.

Maybe not worrying about things, living fully in the moment, and not being self conscious was a richer existence.Sure, we humans can figure out things like how to build nuclear reactors and vacuum cleaning robots, but is that trade-off worthwhile in terms of quality of life?

Maybe Darwin was wrong, at least in the case of humans.  Maybe our cognitive evolution has overshot the mark to where our thought processes are more of a detriment than an asset.

My Golden Retriever passed away years ago, but I have never forgotten that walk. If nothing helps, it keeps me humble about this “superior species” concept.