In Howl, Allen Ginsberg asked, “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”
Many people say humans are different from other animals because we have speech. Some say we have “civilization” or “culture,” whatever that is. Some say we have exceptional intelligence. Hmm. Some say we shape the planet, and that makes us special. Well, we did invent and name after ourselves the Anthropocene Epoch. Some say our use of tools distinguishes us from all the other animals. Not true.
Humans differ from other animals only in degree, but our primary difference and greatest ability is imagination. Imagination is visualizing what never was but might well be, and the ability requires practice, training, and constant use.
Anyone who says “I can’t imagine that” is crippled in a serious way. Anyone who says, “You can’t know how I feel” is equally handicapped. Anyone who says, “You don’t know me” is just silly. “Knowing you” is one of imagination’s primary functions.
Albert Einstein may have had one of the finest imaginations to ever grace humanity, and when he died, cold and curious doctors sliced up his brain for study. They discovered that Einstein’s brain was no different than anyone else’s.
You and I could have told those doctors before they bashed open his skull and sliced up his brain that what was different about Einstein’s brain wasn’t the composition, size, or number of folds. What was different about Einstein’s brain was how he used his gray matter: Einstein fully used the imagination.
Imagination enriches our lives, and poetry develops, exercises, expands, and strengthens the imagination. We all need to use the imagination, but too often, we don’t, and that is dangerous. Without imagination, we are prey to those who want to sell us the answers to life’s questions. These vendors believe in, bank on, and exploit the failure of imagination, yours, mine, and everyone else’s.
My plan is to read and write good poetry; love a lot; save something (as the bumper sticker advises); and cultivate imagination. We need more imagination on this planet, and we need more now. I know one thing for sure: if we can’t imagine a better world, we will never live in one.
Eric Shaffer is the author of EVEN FURTHER WEST.