I can’t imagine my own child living far from home, forced to work to provide for their own living or to send money back to us so that we can survive. Packaging chips, baking granola bars, cutting meat, doing whatever is required by the adults who are their guardians, whether in their best interest or not. I can’t imagine letting my child go, but that’s just evidence that I can’t imagine grinding poverty because I’ve never had to experience it. I don’t know what it means not to be able to provide food and shelter for my family. I have never been put in that position. 

It is this failure of imagination that leads us so often to a failure of empathy. If I can’t imagine another person’s circumstances, they are not real to me, and so I make up reasons to explain them. Rather than understanding that my love for my family, my desire to care and provide for my child, my wish to protect those I love from harm is shared by a parent on the other side of the planet – and thereby generating some level of empathy for the conditions that would push that parent to allow their child to immigrate to a foreign country on their own – I focus on the child’s departure and impute ill motives to the parent based on how I assume I would act in that same situation. 

This failure of imagination leads those of us who have never been incarcerated to focus on the choices of those who have, rather than the challenging life conditions that took so many choices away from them. It leads us to aggrandize the wealthy and villainize the poor. It leads us to blame people’s addictions exclusively on their personal choices rather than recognizing the obstacles they have faced.

This failure of imagination even prevents us from clearly seeing ourselves. If we look in the mirror and can’t acknowledge how we might honestly react in a rolling and ongoing crisis, if we assume that we will make the most productive and valiant choice when all those around us are trying to just get by, we inevitably will judge ourselves when we make the smallest mistake. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our condemnation of others’ choices inevitably bleeds over into condemnation of our own. Our vilification of others’ humanity becomes self-vilification. 

We need our sense of imagination. It keeps us open to the challenges others are facing. It keeps us open to how we might react to a similar problem. It keeps us empathetic to others and ourselves regardless of the conditions in which we find ourselves. It’s not hard to imagine that we all could use a little more of that.

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