The Limits of Imagination

Sailing for sport, it has the entire weight of the burden of civilization behind it. Not the “White Man’s Burden,” an assumed paternalistic “responsibility” to the “savages,” but the burden civilization places on the world to maintain a few in positions from which we can contemplate doing things just for the sport.

This holds true, not only for the master predators who toss their “pocket change” at keeping luxurious mega-yachts, but also holds true for any of us trading-in “sacrifices” to afford time taking pleasure on the water.

This realization shouldn’t be so shocking. I’m humbled by how hard it was to write down those words condemning something I’ve spent so much of my life aspiring to. Something I hold close to my heart, something I must say I truly value. For others, there must be other such passions that would fill this niche for them. While they might scoff at my hard-won contrition, they would be equally shocked if they faced such a realization where it strikes them at home.

Most everything we civilized people do has this burden held over it. Our “necessities,” as well as our amenities, maintain a burden on the world that cannot be supported.

Somehow, what we do out of sheer choice seems more culpable – or we lack the assurance of our habits of propping-up necessity for things that appear trivial from outside of our own blend of affections and obsession.

This ache should prompt us to look into its reasons. This symptom might reveal something of wider significance. The act of navigating such a subject without falling into self-pity or romantic self-justifications should, of itself, be of value even if it fails to lead us to any definite further conclusions.

One of the tones of despair behind our fear of such questions is that we might lose our appetite for living if we allow ourselves to see through our illusions at the horrific consequences of our existence. Afraid of where this all might lead, we tend to focus on our own chosen standard-bearer, filling in for a respect for life, for being in its entirety, for working to maintain conditions that don’t strip the world of its capacity to live; we push that realization aside and displace that sacred impulse onto some fragment of existence; sensual pleasure, the devotion to a cause, securing our “own,” or giving our allegiance to some institution or idea. Un-Dead, we tremble after the fate of the unborn while we ignore the living and the conditions we bequeath to any who might presume to follow us. There are plenty of other examples from “both sides” of our meager political “spectrum….”

*

The crux of the arguments for the continuation of civilization seem to come down to, “I want!” Whether it’s the thug in a mini-van who wants “NO QUEER MARRIAGE,” or the sensitive “ecologist” who wants “alternative energy” to power the continued destruction in a way more suited to her tastes. The questioning ends at the wall of our desires. No one seems willing to look beyond this point. Our imaginations end there as surely as a flat earth fell-away some leagues beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

An old friend always repeated the story of sitting in a restaurant near a well-dressed middle aged, middle class urban couple. The wife spends the entire time complaining of all she doesn’t have. The husband finally snaps and cries out, “I want, I want! I WANT!” “Well, you can’t have! YOU can’t HAVE! YOU CAN’T HAVE!

What happens after that point? Who can tell, as we discover we, “can’t have” how will we respond?

Half of the pathetic humor of his story came from our expectation that after our “hero’s” rage had crested and broke, he would go back to quietly listening to her renewed litany. She would never forgive him his outburst, but would ignore its meaning beyond its value as an excuse for further resentment.

The Battle of the Somme was categorized as the way “God teaches the Law to kings.” In 1914 that may have seemed a potent lesson, but in 1918? In 1945? In 2011? We are now all “kings” and we seem immune to the gravest of lessons.

If it were simply a matter of “correcting” the delusions of others, this “changing the world” wheeze would be easy. It’s not.

In each of our lives we need to both see fully the consequences of our very existence and then find a way to embody those realizations in feats of imagination that see beyond the barrier of “I want.”

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8 thoughts on “The Limits of Imagination

  1. You kinda nail it… we all blabber about permaculture and doing with less and how this lifestyle is unsustainable… but the “I want” keeps intruding. I just read an account of the start up of Earthaven ecovillage… the founders knew perfectly well that the way to go is to go with a closely spaced cluster of dwellings but as soon as it was time to stake out each person’s claim, they all wanted to be out in the woods with lots of privacy and away from the others. Sigh.

  2. I call some of this functional art, quotes like these, especially when i can understand them with minimal strain (now that’s lovable useful art!):

    “The crux of the arguments for the continuation of civilization seem to come down to, ‘I want!’ … The questioning ends at the wall of our desires. No one seems willing to look beyond this point. Our imaginations end there as surely as a flat earth fell-away some leagues beyond the Pillars of Hercules.”

    I not only think i really know what you’re getting at, i’ve been getting at it too. Been examining my desires and perceived needs on a sort of obsessive basis, no big discipline in itself, just increasingly my “natural way” of late. (Not that you or i never used to question, though, eh?) I’m very much up against the ‘but why?’s and “How do i just be as ok as possible with doing with seriously less?’ and ‘Downright look forward to, actually, much as possible, the doing without!’?, I watch the desire, watch the denial that drives my ignorance of having being “spoiled” in this civ, expecting such “abundance” without bothering to grow or make it… And like a downward-spiraling plane whose pilot’s awakened by the passengers, i pull up, or substitute appropriate waterworthy analogies in context of this evocative little post.

    So thanks for helping…helps to have peers waking up in their own vessels, realizing why they are sputtering, looking for a plateau some of us can land…

    1. Jay D,

      Thanks! It is so good to get this kind of feedback!

      I also feel these are common realizations, just ones we tend to hide from, even from ourselves.

      What the people who resist ever broaching these subjects don’t get is the way we get lighter as we drop the poses that hold us complicit.

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