At the edge of your imagination there’s a fence.
Beyond it lie all the possibilities you can’t yet imagine, the proposals or frames of reference you cannot see. This essay is about that edge, the spaces in between our fenced in yards, what we can easily conceive of as possible. It’s also about what becomes possible if our curiosity is intense enough to stray away from the familiar, to suspend judgement and explore.
Our relentless routines ruled our days. There was little time or energy to contend with anything that didn’t fit into them.
Abruptly the pandemic came and interrupted us. With this new breathing room, something different came into view. The fenced-in edges of our imaginations appeared, no longer a blur half-seen in the midst of our rush. We glimpsed the limits of what we might think of as possible.
How do we describe the ways we frame our world? The question probably didn’t occur to us before.
In our normal lives, we often frame possibilities in terms of dichotomies, of our available options being this or that. There’s no time or energy to explore third options. In the current economic rhetoric, for example, this manifests as capitalism or socialism.
But in reality, if we could step into some more omniscient perspective, there may be dozens, if not hundreds of novel possibilities right in front of us, almost all of them invisible. For those of us who aren’t yet suffering with this pandemic or hurtling towards financial ruin, we get a pause.
Locked down and in quarantine, perhaps trying meditation or just taking time to listen to wind chimes or appreciate spring blossoms, we are graced with an opportunity. We have time to reflect and “do nothing,” to act like human beings again rather than “human doings.”
This opportunity is sometimes called “oblique thinking.” The solutions to society’s big challenges lie adjacent but invisible to our conscious mind, beyond our fence’s edge, beyond our routine yard of thoughts and habits. This moment has temporarily liberated us from the deep behavioral grooves we dig for ourselves. When we‘re calm and look away from a pressing habit — when we read a book on an unrelated topic, for instance — a possibility comes into view. The subconscious layers grappling with our predicament rise to the level of conscious thoughts. A path through what seemed an impregnable bramble comes into focus. “I never would have thought of that,” we might think. Time “doing nothing” can yield surprisingly creative fruit.
I’m writing this now on April 11th, in our new world, reshaped by the corona virus. This is likely new to most of us, a kind of compulsory meditation retreat. But unlike a typical retreat, we are not actually alone. We still have digital tools to connect with others any time of day or night, and all over the world. And we have been emancipated from our treadmills; the pandemic gifted us, the time impoverished, an opportunity for reflection. In our new world the sparks of expanding vision can be fanned, in dialogue with others, weaving our divergent perspectives into terrain beyond our limited individual imaginations. We can see the spaces between our fences, beyond the viewable region of any one person alone.
What do some of these formerly invisible fences, the normal demarcations of our imaginations, look like? Here are a few examples you may or may not have considered.
The Protestant work ethic and many of the echoes of Calvinism remain with us today, shaping our choices around work, dignity, wealth and charity. You may be Jewish, Christian, agnostic or god-free in America, but chances are, you carry within you Protestant frames of reference built by these original “work till you drop” philosophers. This was the credo of the Industrial Revolution and it found rich soil on our shores. Endless effort is noble, in and of itself. Hard work is its own reward. Perhaps most insidious, wealth is evidence of favor with God. Conversely, your poverty may be the outcome of your sins, your disfavor with God and your own laziness. We doubt the ethical worth of the impoverished and it slips in the back door of advertising and sit-coms, our fetishes for wealth and the moral cleansing it allows. This is part of the reason why we’ve all been so busy.
Do you see the contours of this philosophy in your own opinions? Is it evident to you in our media? Do you think you have somehow transcended it?
Here is another fence, one of my own, but one we likely share.
My lack of knowledge of physics confines me to perhaps a Newtonian understanding of our cosmos. My grasp of quantum mechanics and its effects is patchwork and likely for the most part incorrect, the fruit of a lot of science fiction I read in my teens and twenties. I don’t really understand the forces at work at cosmic and microscopic scales. My fence imposes an edge to what is imaginable to me; I cannot see the mathematical terrain of quantum theory. But people with deep expertise can, and they are a tiny minority. The rest of us haven’t yet caught up to them.
Or how about this fence?
Most of us understand the bedrock question of “what is a person?” through the lens of Abrahamic theology. We have a soul, a body it inhabits and maybe even a prime mover God who set all of creation into motion. Most of us understand what it means to be a person, to have a subjective point of view, through the metaphors of René Descartes, even if we’ve never read his philosophy. Again, we don’t see the invisible fences in our way, as these limits are woven into the assumptions of our everyday language. We feel things “in our souls.” There’s an implied Cartesian theater and our souls sit at its center. We may swap theaters, but the soul is eternal. Descartes did none of us any favors, equating our ethical responsibilities towards other animals as equal to our responsibilities towards rocks or chairs. Animals don’t get to have souls and therefore are ethically unimportant. His ideology paved the way for industrial animal agriculture and fruitless struggles to bring our behavior into fidelity with something called a “true self.”
What is my mind? This question essentially underlies all other understandings.
Understanding is a process of the mind. And yet it’s easier for most of us to live in the legacy ideas, our inheritance, our conditioning. We’d rather not interrogate these beasts. It is not profitable or celebrated. It can be confusing, lead to ambiguities. We’d rather focus on the practical realities of our daily lives. In the pre-pandemic world, this was a form of willful ignorance, abetted by the crush of all there was to do, the open throttle of our pressing tasks.
So here we are, most of us under Shelter In Place orders from our mayors and governors. We are faced with terrifying weeks ahead, real human tragedies, but also opportunities.
If we’re lucky, we have time to pause. Even for those of us living hand to mouth, most states are barring all evictions. We can take a breather. We can give ourselves a break, even if only for a few days. We have a moment to reflect on all of the false dichotomies shaping our understandings, our behaviors, the underlying assumptions of our daily lives. We can see for the first time the edges of our own yard.
Look at how we all have reduced this vast cosmos and crammed it within the limited confines of our fence? The smallness of our ontological perch is dizzying. But it’s also an invitation. What would the view be like if we wove all our yards together? What if we could see into the gaps between houses? The power of our collective imagination beckons. Revelations are just over there. The imaginative power of our world united is not an impossible goal.
What if we step through the gate, past the edge of the fence and meet the new terrain with curiosity? What if we realize that such explorations are not fatal? In fact, what if they’re not even dangerous? Maybe exploration can be exhilarating. Maybe weaving the fabric of our collective “what ifs” is cathartic, fulfilling in its own right. It feels good to have our worldview enlarged, complicated rather than simplified. We get to inhabit a complex imagination full of contradictions. Such a nuanced terrain I think might bring hope and possibilities.
What a golden moment. What a gift. What a chance to see beyond our tiny view and bring into the light of our imagination the spaces past the fence’s edge, an edge we’d previously not even seen. What are the “adjacent possibles” of understanding? What are the opportunities for doing things differently out there, alone and together?
What are the ways we might cooperate at scale, coordinate our efforts and shape our own behaviors to create a better world? Imagine if we had options beyond simply adapting to legacy systems we inherited, legacy frames of reference. Imagine conscientiously sculpting the tools that in turn shape us, the tools from which we derive our everyday habits and choices. Imagine new forms of government, economies and education. Imagine reinventing ideas of ownership, access, liberty and self-determination. What do we want to incentivize?
If nothing were expected of us right now, we might regain our composure, a composure we didn’t even realize we’d lost. We might rediscover our internal compass to guide us in inquiry, to articulate our own ethics. We might ask ourselves perhaps the most powerful question our species can face.
What kind of world could we build now that all of the accelerating systems have slowed or stopped?