Seeing What You’ve Seen

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" … the prophetic and poetic task of imagining the world righteously is ever before us. Maybe it’s a joy set before us by others. You have to really want to see." David Dark explores what it means to see what you've seen in his contribution to our theme The Work of Imagination.

I once watched the veteran singer-songwriter Peter Case lead a discussion among young aspiring musicians concerning lifelong habits of creativity. He talked about how an artist operates as a thieving magpie, always on the lookout for bits, threads, and fragments that might serve in the assembling together of a nest. With the same working survival instinct, the artist draws inspiration from a half-remembered remark, a billboard, an odd facial expression misperceived, a snatch of dialogue among strangers, or whatever’s at hand—sometimes directly or word-for-word—to articulate something needful, new, and timely whether in lyric, image, story, or argument.

“How old are you guys?” he asked as a lull had set in. Most reported themselves to be in their late teens and early twenties. Nodding, he surprised everyone by saying, “You’ve seen enough then. You have more than enough material to get you where you’re going.” After a pause, “But maybe you haven’t seen what you’ve seen.”

What a line. And as the best magpie I had it in me to be, I went ahead and made that line my own, repeating it as often as possible so as to take the admonition to heart, to imagine myself and others well—and therefore deeply and generously—whenever occasions permit. What could be more socially essential, more sacred? After all, nobody can do the work of being and seeing for you.

Imagination's Bad Rap

As someone who has read the Bible carefully with other people my whole life, I’m often surprised by what a bad rap imagination gets. It’s as if we’re afraid of it. Maybe it’s the way the prophet Jeremiah’s critique of his own community (devising evil in the imagination of their hearts, thinking perversely) somehow got misconstrued as a biblical pronouncement that imagination, generally speaking, is evil. I’d say our imagination is all we’ve got. It’s never ever a side issue. How could one get to the side of something so central? We’re encouraged to use it, from time to time, but how could we use our desires, our dreams, or our fears? Maybe our imagination, for better or worse, uses us.

My imagination is at the very heart of how I go about relating to the world. I’m always imagining in one way or another, whether generously or mercilessly, whether with care and caution or in a pinched, fearful, endlessly defensive fashion; weaving, crafting, and generally acting on what I believe I understand according to my conception of things. My imagination can ring true, but it can also prove devastatingly false in this way I have of dealing, coping, and managing myself and others. The question of how I imagine is always the question of right relationship, a question that can’t be easily avoided by anyone anywhere. It’s a question that comes to us in our dreams when we try to.

The Basic Power of the Imagination

From the dark depths of the Marvel Universe, consider Steve Ditko’s Doctor Stephen Strange and his vision of “the basic power of the imagination.” Everything turns upon it, swaying us to the mood of what we like or loathe. One of Ditko’s stories “The Possessed,” from Strange Tales, featured the good doctor performing acts of saving wizardry on behalf of the inhabitants of a village in the Bavarian Alps who have been possessed by hostile spirits from another dimension. In his final stand-off with an incorporeal being that had overcome the mind of the village’s hapless mayor, Strange responds to the poltergeist’s final taunt with an overpowering spell: “There is no power greater than that which I possess, for mine is the basic power of the imagination, the gossamer threads of which dreams are woven.”

What we weave and, more disturbingly, what we find woven around us in binding images, ideas, and stories about the way the world works is ultimately decisive in the way we conduct ourselves, what we fear, bet on, and hope for in all we do. When our imagination is transformed, culture follows, but when it has hardened past the point of yielding to insight, we the people perish. Whether it’s a trap or a means of transport, the tangled web of what we’re able to imagine, the meanings we assign and design in the spaces we’re in, defines our lives. And as Jeremiah understood so profoundly, our capacity for illusion is limitless.

To See Is to Imagine

As counterintuitive as it might seem, the sacred task of actually being a part of where I live, of being a body meaningfully present among and to my family and surrounding community, is central to the work of imagination. Right livelihood begins with right conception, and because I can’t easily conceive the web of relationships out of which, say, an affordable cup of coffee is placed before me, I am compelled to try to imagine it as justly and realistically as I can. To see truly in spite of all that I can’t know, I have to try to imagine. There is no neighborliness, we might say, without a carefully and far-reachingly employed imagination; reaching beyond, for instance, the question of how inexpensive the coffee is for me and toward the lengthy liturgy involving those who grew, cultivated, and picked the beans and hopefully own the land on which they labored. So much depends on where we go with our imaginations.

Like many a biblical prophet, Martin Luther King Jr. invited all of us to imagine ourselves—in our buying, selling, voting, speaking, and doing—as entirely caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. He invited us to see it not merely as a dream but as a living fact. Needless to say, there is so much coming at us, in every variety of media, that would endlessly distract us from thinking and acting out of this sacred common sense in our hurried and harried worlds that don’t honor—and might even punish—such thoughtfulness. But the prophetic and poetic task of imagining the world righteously is ever before us. Maybe it’s a joy set before us by others. You have to really want to see. Maybe we can develop a taste for it. Others have. Maybe we can too.