This morning while reading The Healing Imagination, I came across Ann and Barry Ulanov’s brief description of Vaclav Havel—“A professional of the imagination”—and was filled with longing. That’s what I want to be! “Professionals of the imagination” are what the world most needs now; we need people who can imagine themselves into others’ shoes, who can imagine improbable solutions to our environmental crisis, who bring imaginative richness to souls sucked dry by productivity and consumerism, who can remind us that we all have untold, untapped wealth within our psyches.
I’m thinking of this having just flown out of LaGuardia’s new C terminal, with its rows of café tables sporting new tablets, tented back-to-back, advertisements flashing in the diners’ faces. And then I boarded a new 737 with screens set in the seats. I had to ask the flight attendant to turn mine off.
In New York I had a chance to teach a few classes at my high school as a visiting writer. Afterward the English teacher told me about how the Common Core Standards have affected the New York Regents exams and therefore her teaching. Only one of four essay questions on the exam invite the students to compare various works of literature. The others test comprehension, analysis, organization, argument…all valuable skills, certainly, but with the consequence that English teachers teach far fewer novels and poems now and instead have students read nonfiction. When I asked the senior honors classes to create a character, imagine a scene, and then write some dialogue, I had to explain what dialogue was. Our 90 minutes playing with fiction seemed a happy but irrelevant blip in their education.
The kids had recently handed in first drafts of their college essays, and what I wanted to tell them, what I couldn’t possibly in 90 minutes, was that what matters most in a college essay—and in college, and in a career, and in a life well led—is the capacity to think for yourself, to follow your heart’s urging, to use your authentic voice, and to work with compassion and creative regard with those radically different from yourself. In other words, to have an actual thought while sitting in the airport and then perhaps share that thought with your seatmate on the plane. Even better to play daily, passionately, and to allow that play to shape your life.
Vaclav Havel was a playwright and the first democratically elected president of Czeckloslovakia after 41 years under communist dictatorship. Here’s what he said about “the diseased imagination of totalitarianism”:
We felt morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions and for many of us they represented…gone astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships.
We need ambassadors of the imagination because only by exercising our imaginations can we wend our way back to our humanity and, once there, thrive. This is true in the airport, in the classroom, in government, as a culture. That’s why I get to my knees and play dolls with my five-year-old. I want to become a professional. Will you join me?
(Quotations from Ann & Barry Ulanov’s The Healing Imagination, Diamon 1991)