Fear and Imagination

I know it’s late for Election Day, not to mention Halloween. But these two holidays have got me thinking about fear, and that topic is appropriate any time of the year, isn’t it?

We’ve certainly got a decent array of things to be afraid of these days. Climate change, the collapse of the financial industry, the collapse of our personal finances, terrorism, cancer, and what about those pesky human clones and GMOs no one seems to be talking about anymore?

A wise man (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his first Inaugural Address) said well over half a century ago, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I’ve been thinking a lot about those words this time of year, as I listen to the terror in people’s voices and campaign speeches.

Speaking of terror, were you surprised that I didn’t put terrorism first on my list of things to fear? It’s not that I don’t want to think about terrorism, It’s that I can’t. I can’t wrap my mind around such an all-encompassing, impossible-for-me-to-adequately-protect-myself-against threat.

And that’s my point. We all know that imagination, the stock-in-trade of a storyteller–and communication scholar Walter Fisher said we are all storytellers by virtue of our common humanity–can be both a tremendous hindrance and an invaluable benefit. (That’s true of most things in life, of course. I’m thinking specifically right now of chocolate, but you know what I mean.) When we have strong imaginations, professional storytellers like to say, we can imagine all sorts of alternatives in our lives, whether it’s a vision for our own future or for that of our planet. Most of us would agree that’s generally a good thing, unless the imaginer (imaginator?) is, say, a certain missing person known as Osama. And Osama is the point, because I am suggesting here that imagination, like storytelling, can also be used for ill.

I don’t only mean imagining worldwide domination. I mean, when our imaginations take over, we lose contact with reality. But wait a minute–isn’t dull old reality the very thing that’s holding us back, according to storytellers?

Fear is future-oriented–we fear what we believe might, or can, or will happen. That is, we fear what we imagine for the future. But our prophesies must be based on valid evidence, particularly if we are going to act on them. Each of us needs to determine for ourselves exactly what constitutes valid evidence, of course. But imagination doesn’t necessarily enter into that particular equation.

It pains me to say it, but once again, moderation wins out. A generous helping of imagination, a dollop of evidence, and maybe, just maybe, we can begin to behave reasonably and responsibly.

Imagine that!

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