“We can’t just muster the full strength of our imagination to know what others know and feel what others feel. But after listening to them and hearing their stories … we can imagine with them a better life for all of us,” writes Charity Singleton Craig.
For the past year or so, my husband and I have had a funny habit of constantly imagining what our dog, Tilly, might be thinking and then speaking for her. We’ve even given her a humorous hoarse, raspy “voice” after she developed a nasty case of kennel cough when she was boarded last summer.
“I want a bite of that,” we say in our best Tilly voice while she sits attentively watching us eat dinner.
“Throw the ball, throw the ball,” we chant, imagining what Tilly is thinking as we play with her on the floor.
“I’m so tired,” we project, as Tilly lies sprawled out on the floor.
Even though science indicates that dogs do have perceivable emotional lives and that our canine friends have developed an amazing “mental toolkit for living alongside us,” my husband and I are no dog whisperers. Our ability to imagine what our dog is thinking is likely even worse than our ability to see things from other people’s perspectives. Even though, in both cases, we likely believe we are better at it than we actually are.
POOR JUDGES OF OTHERS’ PERCEPTIONS
That’s what psychologist Nicholas Epley discusses in his book Mindwise. When researchers asked people to judge what strangers were thinking (i.e., job candidates were asked whether an interviewer was impressed with them), not only did most people misread others’ perceptions, they imagined they were much better at reading them than they actually were. Paul Bloom describes the phenomenon in his New York Times opinion piece “Imagining the Lives of Others”:
People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance. Other studies find that people who are instructed to take the perspectives of others tend to do worse, not better, at judging their thoughts and emotions.
Even before I read Bloom’s article, I knew the truth of this principle from my own life—not just in the silly voice-overs I lend to my dog, Tilly, but also in the way I attempt to relate to people from other backgrounds and cultures. Last year, as part of The High Calling team, I participated in an intercultural development inventory to assess my “intercultural competence” defined as “the capability to accurately understand and adapt behavior to cultural difference and commonality.”
As our consultant Helen Fagan met with me to discuss my individual results, she explained my “orientation gap.” This is the measured difference along the competence continuum between my “perceived” and “actual” ability to engage with others. To my surprise, my gap was high, really high, meaning I had significantly “overestimated [my] level of intercultural competence.” I was disappointed in myself, but Helen said I am not alone. Just like Epley’s research and just like Bloom’s analysis, her research indicated that most of us aren’t as good at stepping into others’ shoes as we’d like.
MAYBE WE SHOULD TRY HARDER
The most obvious solution is to try to improve our ability to understand what other people are thinking and experiencing. That’s a common strategy, says Bloom, for engaging with situations like the excessive use of force at the McKinney pool party or the ISIS takeover in Ramadi. We try harder to imagine what it’s like to be the people in those dramatic events. Other people go as far as immersion, taking on another’s situation for an extended period of time. But when we choose to enter someone else’s difficult situation, Bloom explains, we retain the choice to leave, which changes our experience of it. Bloom also talks about the problem of duration. “I can imagine what it’s like to deal with a crying baby for a few minutes or spend time by myself in a small room or have a stranger recognize me on the street,” he writes. “But it’s much harder to imagine—impossible, I think—what it would be like to be a single parent, suffer a year of solitary confinement, or become a famous movie star.”
The solution, according to Bloom, is to stop trying to imagine what a circumstance is like for other people and to let them tell you about it.
Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect—people sometimes lie or are confused or deluded—but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires, and histories of people who are different from us.
But where does that leave our imaginations?
OUT OF NOTHING
Theaster Gates is a potter by training and a social activist by calling. When he looked around at the rundown condition of his neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, he wanted to do something. So he began buying up and transforming abandoned buildings into community hubs for art, culture, discussion, and more.
When he told his story in a 2015 TED talk, he explained how his efforts to create something new in his neighborhood were much the same as his artistic process: “One of the things that really excites me in my artistic practice and being trained as a potter is that you very quickly learn how to make great things out of nothing … and that the limitations of my capacity, my ability, were based on my hands and my imagination.”
Out of nothing. Ex nihilo.
Of course Theaster Gates wasn’t technically creating ex nihilo. As a potter, he starts with clay, and as a social activist, he starts with the abandoned buildings and the neighborhood where they sit. But using his imagination, Theaster Gates did create out of nothing something no one else had seen or touched or perceived. Theaster plus the raw materials around him plus his imagination allowed him to create a brand new thing that had never existed before.
USING OUR IMAGINATIONS TO CREATE A BRAND NEW THING
So our imaginations do have a role to play in how we understand the circumstances and thoughts of others, but not in the way we may think. We can’t just muster the full strength of our imagination to know what others know and feel what others feel. But after listening to them, hearing their stories and struggles, taking the time to believe what they say about their circumstances, we can imagine with them a better life for all of us. Not just joining them in their plight or inviting them to ours, but using all our circumstances as raw material to create a brand new thing none of us has yet conceived. Ex nihilo.
In this same way, imagination can serve as an effective business strategy. According to Business News Daily, the most successful businesses are characterized by a few positive traits: using resources effectively and efficiently, having a strong customer focus, and maintaining organizational capability to support critical business objectives. But no company will survive over time without the imagination to continually create new things out of nothing.
“To profit—indeed, to survive—in 2015 and beyond, companies must not just adopt new, unanticipated, and more decentralized forms of digitization and technological innovation, but must use them to reshape their business models,” writes Jeffrey Rothfeder in a Strategy & Leadership article. The problem, he suggests, is an “imagination gap” between those who look around and want to keep doing things the way they currently are conceived and those who are imagining something new out of the raw material of the “opportunities and challenges of the technologies emerging.”
RIGHT CONCEPTION, RIGHT LIVELIHOOD
We also find imagination at the crucial intersection between our relationships with others and our work in the world and, indeed, all things of significance in our lives. For our imagination resides in our spiritual hearts and minds, moved and shaped by the Spirit or distorted and destroyed by an enemy who would hinder the effects of our imago dei and who would limit our creations ex nihilo.
“As counterintuitive as it might seem, the sacred task of actually being a part of where I live, of being a body meaningfully present among and to my family and surrounding community, is central to the work of imagination,” writes David Dark. “Right livelihood begins with right conception, and because I can’t easily conceive the web of relationships out of which, say, an affordable cup of coffee is placed before me, I am compelled to try to imagine it as justly and realistically as I can. To see truly in spite of all that I can’t know, I have to try to imagine.”
There is no neighborliness, we might say, without a carefully and far-reachingly employed imagination; reaching beyond, for instance, the question of how inexpensive the coffee is for me and toward the lengthy liturgy involving those who grew, cultivated, and picked the beans and hopefully own the land on which they labored. So much depends on where we go with our imaginations.
Whether we are trying to read the thoughts of a beloved pet or empathize with members of a broken community or lead our company toward a successful future, we need our imaginations to help us see beyond the raw materials toward the new thing that never existed before. And create.