Imagination, Self-awareness, and Compassion

Albert Einstein has said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Liberation theologian, Rubem Alves, has written that the most important thing we can do for children is to teach them literature. To do so is to awaken their imagination to the possibility of alternatives, rather than regard the status quo as definitive, and so, in the future, to be able to work for creative change. Imagination is expressed in the arts: in story and drama, in music, in painting and sculpture, and in small ways in many activities of everyday life. We have already expressed the importance of image and story in a variety of ways. This week we will add a few more thoughts on this theme.

In an interview with Krista Tippett for the On Being program, Brian Doerries, artistic director and author, spoke of his reasons for presenting ancient Greek tragedy to a variety of modern audiences. He observes that the ancient Greeks developed this form of storytelling to “communalize trauma,” to help people realize that they are not alone here and now or even across time. These stories, especially when enacted, can help people to grapple honestly and with dignity with present wounds and longings, and to realize that we are not the only people to have felt this isolated or alone or betrayed.

At the same time, he adds, we may realize, as the character Oedipus did, that we may tend to inflict on others the pain that has been inflicted on us, perhaps even in early childhood. “But what I’ve seen,” Doerries concludes, “is people discovering that by telling their story and sharing their narrative, no matter how hard it may be, they are helping other people, and in helping other people, they’re healing themselves.”

His observations remind me of the words of Richard Rohr that suffering that is not transformed is transmitted. They also recall the conviction of John Shea that any sorrow can be born provided a story can be told about it. Sam Keen, in Your Mythic Journey (both the book and the video presentation), reflects a similar perspective. “”By telling our story, we remember our past, invent our present, and envision our future. By sharing our story, we overcome loneliness, learn compassion, and achieve community with kindred souls. … Everyone has a fascinating story to tell, an autobiographical myth. And when we tell our stories to one another, we, at one and the same time, find the meaning of our lives and are healed from our isolation and loneliness. Strange as it may seem, self-knowledge begins with self-revelation. We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.”

What emerges from the above references is the conviction that we may often be trapped unknowingly in our own unrecognized pain and without awareness tend to inflict it upon others. What we can experience in a play or story or other art form is a naming of our own experience. This awakening can at once make us aware that do indeed have unfaced sorrow and that we have inflicted it upon others. At the same time, it can make us aware as well that we are not isolated in our suffering, that it is shared in some way by everyone we meet and all strangers, and can evoke at least the beginning of compassion for others. In the words of Henri Nouwen, we can become “wounded healers.”

As suggested, one path to self-discovery and healing is to name our experience.  Yet we can perhaps do so most profoundly and fully by telling our story to a respectfully aware and caring other; and correspondingly by listening in a similar way to another’s story. this experience can happen in a continuous way in friendship, which I have sometimes described  as the sharing of uniqueness.  We may discuss friendship more fully on another occasion. Here we might just mention that a key element in friendship is open and trusting conversation. After such shared speaking, there is at once a tendency at once to absorb quietly this experience and to be aware of the unique personhood of the other. In this sense, vulnerable conversation pushes both towards solitude and compassion; and to a realization at once of the uniqueness of each person and of the common humanity shared by all.

Similar thoughts are expressed by Karen Armstrong in her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Reflecting on Sophocles Oedipus plays, and Oedipus’ own transformation through suffering, she comments: “Tragic drama reminds us of the role that art can play in expanding our sympathies.” “Imagination,” she insists, “is crucial to the compassionate life. … Art calls us to recognize our pain and aspirations and to open our minds to others. Art helps us–as it helped the Greeks–to realize that we are not alone; everyone else is suffering too. … Our pain, therefore can become an education in compassion.”

As I have said before, I believe that at the core of our being, we are a self of sacred worth. This heart is our hearth, our true home. Yet surrounding this core is what may be called a wall of hurt, then fear, then hostility. Through the arts, as well as through meditation, friendship, social involvement, and the like, we may come to be more and more in touch with and live from this inner centre, and respond to that centre in others, rather than live from our own and others hurt, fear, and hostility.

May you all have a safe journey to that inner sanctuary of your true self, and find there a home for yourself And others.

Norman King, April 26, 2021