A few years ago, a friend of mine was sharing about her battle against cancer. Needless to say, it was an ordeal, and her daily experience was not pleasant in the slightest.* “Oy,” I said, “I can only imagine what it must be like for you right now.”
“Thank you,” she replied. But the way she said ‘thank you’ went well beyond a pleasantry… there was a depth to it, a certain fire around it mixed in with appreciation. I must have given her a quizzical look, for she explained. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me ‘Oh, I know how you feel.’ But they really don’t. Unless you’ve gone through it, you don’t know at all what it feels like.”
Later on that evening, that exchange got me thinking.
Imagination is the path into empathy. It allows us to envision other worlds and other people, and get a glimpse for ourselves what things could be like given the place, past, and experience of another. It calls to us to get out of our own frame and get into that of another.
Imagination is of prime importance in the realm of being human.
But perhaps, in an opposite-side-of-the-same-coin sort of way, it is by putting aside our imagination and recognizing that imagination is just that – an ephemeral visualization of make believe – that even greater empathy is gained.
Realizing that no matter how great and creative we are, no matter how powerful our imagination, there exists still worlds and possibilities and experiences and feelings we haven’t visited, or are not (yet) capable of visiting, in our mind. **
And so it may well be presumptuous to think we know something, and that we know the lows, or highs, that is and are possible to experience.
We can imagine what it might be like; and then leave open the possibility that it might even be so much more.
Imagination is the start of empathy. Going beyond Imagination into No Imagination could well be its fulfillment.
* Fortunately, she was a facile with the distinguishing of pain and uncomfortableness vs suffering. Her spirits stayed lofty even as her body went sideways.