Our Imaginations: Light and Dark Reflections
Updated: Nov 9
I was thrilled when I found my calling as an Expressive Arts Therapist because I've always treasured my imagination and in the field of Expressive Art Therapy, our imaginations reign supreme. When I discovered my work, it was as if the wild child in me, the one who had always dreamed big dreams, and lost herself in imaginative play, took my hand and said, "Here, this is the job for you! You were made for it."
We are all born with vivid imaginations, but we don't live in a society that encourages that part of ourselves to remain vitally alive into adulthood. The dismissive words, "Its just your imagination," come early and echo inside as we grow. If we listen, to those words, they leave us fitting ourselves into straight jackets, rather than dreaming up lives befitting the unique beings that we are. If there is one thing I've learned in my life as an expressive arts therapist, its that when we leave our imaginations behind, we leave our greatest potential as human beings behind as well.
That said, I hold more sobering thoughts about the power of our imaginations as well, because even a quick look at history reminds us that we humans haven't always used our gift to good end. Instead, we have allowed ourselves to envision some pretty dark scenarios, conjuring our darkest angels, and bringing forth the worst of who we are as a species. Perhaps that is a big part of why we turn away from trusting into our imaginations. Without firm grounding in our powers of discernment, many of us just decide to suppress this gift altogether. It is safer that way, we figure, but it is also deadening. As it turns out, I think it is threatening to our survival as a species as well.
Even as a tiny child, my vivid imagination dreamed up dark things. In Finding the Wild Inside, I shared my little girl nightmare about bears coming into my house. That dream may have been what triggered the first, "its only your imagination" comment from my worried mother as she tried to comfort me. I wasn't comforted. With a thin boundary between my dream world and waking life, I figured bears could be anywhere, even in places where bears could not have been, like under my bed or in my closet. So much about growing up and finding balance in life is about learning to handle our wild, imaginative nature. Yet we receive little guidance that would allow us to fully accept our magnificent gift, while at the same time, recognize when it is leading us or others astray.
As we have barreled into the presidential election in the United States, I've been looking at one particular aspect of my failed imagination, my shock as I try to deal with the politics of our moment. This last year has left so many of us in wide-eyed disbelief, our imaginations too small to hold the reality of what we have been witnessing and experiencing. We find it hard to imagine that our lives could unraveled to the extent they have during this pandemic. In the midst of that intensity, our politics have crescendoed to a fever pitch. Many are concerned that our democratic way of life could come to an end, something we never imagined happening in our lifetimes. Every time I turn on the news a gasp, a sob, or angry words are certain to be my response to one story or the other. I'm struggling and I know that others who think like me are too. I'm just as certain, that those of a different political persuasion are equally alarmed, but at something else, and for some other reason. "That's not who we are" we shout, no matter which side we are on.
I'll bet if you ask someone on the left what image pops into their head when they think about a Trump supporter, it might be one of those people wrapped in MAGA paraphernalia, that we see in Jordan Klepper's comic viral videos, interviewing Trump supporters at a rally. If you were to ask someone on the right for a quick image of a Biden supporter, it might be that of a radical, leftist, rioter setting fires and burning down buildings. We are imagining caricatures of people on the fringes of our society. We aren't really seeing one another at all. When we do this, all curiosity and any desire to move toward one another is blocked. In fear and disgust, we just want those we oppose to disappear.
As this split has widened, we find it easy to look at the "other side" with distain, declare their ignorance, and dismiss their right to exist. We assume their intentions are demonic and once we do that, it is a short step to calling them evil. At the very sound of the word evil, our guts twist, and our arms reach out with fists ready to fight. Some of us arm ourselves. We are unquestioningly certain that we are right.
We throw around the word evil like we know what it means. For sure, we mostly see it out there in others, not here, inside ourselves. I'm concerned that that word jumps out of our mouths too easily. Certainly, history tells the story of the horror that follows when we no longer see human beings as people but rather characterize them as other, place them beneath us and then demonize that group as a whole.
This is not to say that evil doesn't exist because I believe it does, but I think we are sloppy and unpracticed at recognizing it. A few weeks ago, I had one of the most disturbing dreams I ever remember having. With much reflection, I think my dream was trying to address this topic of evil and my relationship to it.
In my dream, the meadow which is the front yard of my forest home suddenly fills with cars, trucks, and huge RVs. They are running over my labyrinth and my septic system and I'm furious. I run out to confront these invaders. I learn that they are here for a convention. There is much more to the story, but instead of asking them to get out, when I tromp onto their stages I'm screaming, "Tell me! What are you planning to do with your shit?!" I get increasingly frantic going from meeting to meeting escalating my language. "Just tell me! What are you going to do the your f*%&$# shit! I scream, stomping my feet and using my body to shout as loud as I possible can. "If you are thinking you are going to shit in this forest, forget it because if you do that, I'm going to be the one to step in it!!" And on and on. When I finally feel as if I have spent every last bit of rage in me, I go back inside my house.
I don't want to tell the whole story but when I return to my house, I find myself in a situation where I am being nurtured with exquisite pleasure. When that ends, it slowly dawns on me that I have committed a horrible, horrible, crime. I didn't intend to but it clearly has happened and it is just unimaginable to me. As that reality seeps into me, revealing my participation in something really evil, I am filled with more shame than I have ever felt in my entire life. Its that shame that woke me up and what made this dream, my most disturbing dream in memory.
I asked my dream group friends for help in exploring the message of my dream and then I let all of it settle in me. Within days I synchronously came upon a series of articles by Richard Rohr, OFM on the nature of evil. I am not traditionally religious and I'll admit that I was surprised to read these ideas coming from a Catholic Priest, but I found his musings enlightening and an interesting frame in which to hold my dream.
He warns that when we are unable to imagine the nature of true evil, we use the word to describe a lesser darkness. We conjure up a little red man with horns, a pitchfork and a tail. Then we personalize evil, making it all about individuals, rather than the collective. Our lack of awareness of this process becomes a threat to our society.
All of this has left me contemplating what true evil means to me. I certainly haven't come up with a complete answer but I'm pretty sure it has to do with disconnection rather than connection, rigidity rather than flexibility, deadness rather than aliveness, and hatred rather than love. I don't imagine evil as something outside myself but rather something inside of me, inside of all of us. We are more practiced at seeing it individually, in ourselves and in one another, than we are at seeing how it plays itself out in our collective. Shockingly, in the collective, it is often hidden in the conventions of our time. As Richard Rohr put it, "Before it becomes personal and shameable, evil is often culturally agreed-upon, admired, and deemed necessary." Slavery, the witch hunts, lynching, capital punishment, for example, are all glaring examples of our collective blindness.
My dream was using a play on words by having a "convention," set itself up in my meadow. It was clearly speaking to me of our societal "conventions," our individual transgressions and the relationship between the two.
In the new age, we like to talk about all being One but we are all imagining being One in the LIght, not in the Darkness. When we don't recognize that we are all in this together, that we share the light side of human nature but that we also share the dark side of our species, we will not find our way to a better future. I hope with all my heart that as we move forward, we can stop demonizing one another, and use our powerful imaginations to find a way to heal our societal wounds.
Our problems are not going to go away because of a presidential election, even if we change our leadership. Our leaders can help or hinder but it is "We the People," who need to heal our collective wounds. For me, it is time to explore the model of truth and reconciliation. Imagine how our country, truly dedicated to that process might help us in dealing with our racial wounds, or our gender wounds, and so much more.
This pandemic has provided a pause where so many of us are turning inward to re-evaluate how we are living our lives. I hope we can muster the same in our collective, but it won't be easy. As a first step, it will be up to each one of us to stop demonizing those who oppose us. Rather we will need to open our hearts to both the light and the darkness that we are, individually and collectively, and with love as our guide, imagine a new and better path forward.