The Purpose of Human Imagination

The Internet Librarian International 2012 conference wrapped up yesterday. Perhaps the most widely circulated tweet from the conference came from Airport Librarian (@airprtlibrarian):

We have libraries because people need a place to dream. The collection is not the main goal. #ili2012

— Airport librarian(@airprtlibrarian) October 30, 2012

“People need a place to dream.” Yes!

[Edit: At the request of Airport Librarian, I’d like to credit David Lankes as the original source of the quote, from his keynote speech.]

The human ability to dream and to imagine is one that has fascinated me from a very early age. The scientist in me wonders: Why do we dream? What necessary function is served by our imagination?

Why do people need a place to dream?

I had an experience during my freshman year of college that informed my understanding of the purpose of imagination more than any other…

Books: That Is Exactly How They WorkI grew up as a solidly middle-class, well-educated, heterosexual white male in Fargo, North Dakota. While there were some Asian and Native American people around, Fargo was overwhelmingly majority white and Christian, with very little poverty and practically no violence. From preschool through high school, I had a total of two African-American classmates – in 2nd grade, there was a foreign exchange student from South Africa; and when I was a sophomore in high school, there was a senior who transferred in for his last year. Fargo had its share of discrimination – mainly economic stereotypes, sexism, and homophobia, and all the politics that go along with those – but race was never a major issue in our community.

And yet, I was always very aware of racial issues, as well as economic, gender, and sex issues. In large part, it was because my parents were well-informed and aware of racial issues, having come of age during the Civil Rights Movement. Growing up in the ’80s, at the height of gang violence in the Big Cities of America, listening to rap and watching Spike Lee joints and the Hughes brother’s movies, even just watching the national news, I became very passionate about combating racial discrimination long before I moved to Chicago, where these issues are more than just something on the news, where they’re a part of daily life.

Soon after starting college in Evanston, I began attending anti-discrimination rallies all over campus: LGBT rights, women’s rights, African-American/Hispanic/Asian/minority rights. But I repeatedly encountered an attitude that really bothered me – people kept telling me that I couldn’t help, that there was nothing I could do because I was a straight middle-class white male. For some, it was the issue that I couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to grow up as a minority in a society steeped in institutionalized racism; where the culture of poverty has been so tightly entwined with issues of ethnicity and education; where sexual politics are based overwhelmingly on paternalistic cisgender assumptions. To many, it meant that I was intrinsically part of the problem.

It was so frustrating! Just because I haven’t experienced what it’s like to be an ethnic minority or poor or female or gay in America, it automatically means there’s nothing meaningful I can do help combat racism, sexism, and economic discrimination? That makes no sense to me. I can’t help being born what I was, so shouldn’t my actions be what define me? Isn’t that kinda the whole point of all of this?

And now I’m equating being a straight middle-class white male – with all the inherent, if unfair, advantages built into our society for me – with being discriminated against. As though this is somehow about me. Which is ridiculous and insultingly solipsistic… Thus, my frustration. I didn’t want to be a part of the problem, and I didn’t want to be ineffective. I just wanted to help.

Toward the end of the first quarter of my freshman year, I went to a book talk hosted by an author (whose name escapes me now). He was that season’s hot young talent amongst the literati, the writer du jour of academia. He was a brilliant and wonderful author, and a compelling man. He was African-American, in his late 20s, and he’d grown up dirt poor in Harlem. He came of age in the ’80s, living in the most violent, most abjectly poor neighborhood in the worst borough of New York, and he went to high school at the height of the worst ethnic and drug-related gang activity in U.S. history. He had to struggle against immense odds for every bit of his education, to stay alive and clean and sober, and make it to an Ivy League university where he earned a doctoral degree with high honors. Oh, and did I mention? He’s gay. He talked about his recently published memoirs, about racial discrimination, homophobia, violence, drug and gang culture, urban ethnic identity, and the culture of poverty.

Afterwards, he stuck around for a little while to talk one-on-one with people, and I got a chance to speak with him. I told him about my background, my passion for equal rights, and my frustration with how so many people in the minority community on campus would dismiss my intentions and commitment out-of-hand simply because I was white. Speaking about his lifestory, I said to him, “I grew up a middle-class, heterosexual white guy in a prosperous and safe small town, so no, I can’t understand what it was like for you…”

And he stopped me. He interrupted me and said, “Stop. Don’t ever tell me that you can’t understand what it’s like for me. Because I think you can. You want to know, you’re curious and you listen to what I have to say, and you have an imagination. You can imagine exactly what it was like for me growing up.”

This was a revelation! It taught me one of the most profound truths I know. When we think about our imagination, we think about playing pretend, about storytelling, art, and music, about our ability to dream and theorize. But all of these things are activities we engage in to practice our imagination, to keep it fit and active. They’re not the true purpose of human imagination.

The purpose of imagination is empathy.

Imagination is what allows us to walk a mile in another man’s shoes, to understand that life for someone else is, on the one hand, different from our life – and on the other hand, our lives are still very much the same. Imagination is what enables us to recognize that, despite our differences, there are many things that are universal to human existence – pain, suffering, frustration, happiness, love, joy, yearning – and that someone else’s suffering is as painful to them as ours is to us, that their joy is as joyful as our own.

Imagination teaches us what it’s like to be someone else. It allows us to overcome the fear of the Other and accept them as one of our own.

Imagination, more than anything else, is what truly differentiates us from other animals.

Empathy teaches us compassion.

Anthropologists point to fossil records that mark when our ancestors began burying their dead with ritual and care, where before we’d forget about them and leave their carcasses to rot like any other animal. They note a point in our prehistory when people began actively inconveniencing themselves to care for sick and elderly members of their group, where before we would leave them behind and move on with the hunt, simply abandon them to Fate. There’s fossil evidence of one Paleolithic tribe of hunter-gatherers who made slings to carry a wounded and elderly member along with them even though it slowed them down, strained their resources, and put them so far behind the herd that many in the group died of malnutrition the following winter as a result. Despite this, they continued carrying him and caring for him until he died. They are the first of our ancestors to do so, and the fossil record shows that these behaviors soon spread throughout the human world. This is proof that compassion – empathy – is part of our evolution, that it’s wired into our brains. This fossil evidence coincides with an explosion of creativity in stone tool making and the earliest examples of intentional art. The evolution of compassion and empathy is inextricable from the evolution of our imagination. These things are connected within us at the deepest levels.

Imagination – empathy – compassion: these are the most powerful tools we have to face this world together.

3 thoughts on “The Purpose of Human Imagination

  1. What a wonderful story!
    Thank you for mentioning my tweet, but I was only quoting David Lankes from his keynote. Because I tried so hard to listen and tweet at the same time, I forgot to mention his name. So please: he deserves all the credit. But I do totally agree with him on this one. And on many other things…


    1. I also follow Mr. Lankes work and words very carefully! He’s a wonderful spokesperson for our profession!

      We send so much time defending the service that libraries provide, measuring ROI and arguing cost/benefit – but so much of what we do for our communities lies beyond measurable details. It lies in just such things as this – places for people to dream.

      (The same can be said for good school systems.)

      Thanks for reading!


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