"they say the owl was a baker's daughter. lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be." (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5)

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Monday, June 15, 2015


I've always associated imagination with mental wandering that results in bursts of artistry and creativity. I'm changing my mind. There's a different version of imagination that has undone me. It's not poetic or artistic or even remotely beautiful. Instead, it's the destructive version of imagination that no one discusses. This is the dirty little secret about imagination.

If you haven't yet, I encourage you to listen to Kathryn Schulz's TedTalk, "Don't Regret Regret".  In it, she has this to say about imagination, and it's been haunting me for months.

"It (regret) requires, first of all, agency -- we had to make a decision in the first place. And second of all, it requires imagination. We need to be able to imagine going back and making a different choice, and then we need to be able to kind of spool this imaginary record forward and imagine how things would be playing out in our present."

Through endless studies of human behavior we know that human beings act and feel in accordance with what they believe. But a belief is really nothing more than something we imagine to be true.  We act and feel, not according to how things really are, but according to the image our minds hold of how things are. Everything is imagination!

When we talk about a failure of imagination, we are referring to things that the mind couldn't predict, or a future the brain couldn't conjure, or a reality that humans couldn't anticipate.  But the real failure of imagination is the way it distracts us from how things really are (or were), how it distorts how much agency we truly had, the regret it generates over the choices we've made, and the way it perverts the consequences of those choices into things that we imagine could have been, should have been, would have been different ... better .... if only .... if only we had no imagination

I'm thinking about long distance running. I'm exhausted, but it's only mile 12, or 14, or 16 or 22. I'll never finish if I give in to the fatigue. So, where do I put the tired? I have to imagine it isn't there.  I have to put it aside so that I can accomplish something better, and bigger, than my fatigue.  Regret is like that. Where do you put it? How do you put it aside so you can accomplish something better? You imagine it away.

My imagination is alive and well.  It feasts on my memory, and my moments of weakness, and my mistakes, and my constant wishing for a life without blemishes.  And that's why I instantly fell in love with Kathryn Schulz's TedTalk. Because, "Here's the thing, if we have goals and dreams, and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don't want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn't to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them."

I can imagine this kind of life.  A life in which, "Regret doesn't remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better."

I can throw the full force of my imagination behind betterment-via-regret. Counting Crows said it best, "Regret is a carousel ride."

Time to get off.

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