Sunday, March 8, 2009

But He Has Potential: The Tragedy of the Imagination

The imagination is a powerful reality of the human mind.  With it we have the capacity to re-create the past within our own minds, create scenarios of an unknown future, go on journeys in which the traditional laws of nature simply do not apply, and the like.  While the imagination is powerful, it does have limitations and even weaknesses.  While I may have the capacity to re-create my past within my own mind and even alter the historical chronology of events, such changes in the imagination do not translate into reality. In other words, no matter how much I imagine something to be so, reality trumps.

While this point may appear to be overdrawn, it is worthy of deeper consideration.  How many times have we awoken from an imaginary stupor with feelings of accomplishment?  Countless are the times I have come out of my imagination nearly convinced that I was some incredible Jujitsu master, a secret service agent, or married with a great family! Of course, these creations of my imagination can be quickly debunked when I realize I can’t even kick above my knee without falling over! Nonetheless, caution is the rule of thumb when engaging the imagination. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this statement of caution, one should find it easy to admit that the imagination does in fact make claims completely disproportionate to its actual merits. For this reason alone, one might find reason to engage this faculty more consciencously.

The late great pope John Paul II examines the human faculty of the imagination in a context that is exceedingly more difficult to correct; the context of “Relationships”.  In his book Love & Responsibility, the pope speaks about the “raw materials” of love, two of them being sensuality and sentimentality.  Sensuality is the sexual desire of a particular part of a person’s body whilesentimentality addresses the whole person in their expression of affection for that person (i.e. his/her charm, strength, sensitivity, compassion, etc.).  While it is easy to see the potential pitfall into objectification within the arena of sensuality, the dangers of sentimentality are more subtle. However, JPII is quick to warn us that left alone, sentimentality offers a formidable danger to the health of relationships.

The danger of sentimentality is that it utilizes the imagination for its power.  So much so that the pope deems it worthy to state that “in the eyes of a person sentimentally committed to another person, the value of the beloved object grows enormously – as a rule out of all proportion to his or her real value” (LR, 112).  How many times have we entered into a relationship enchanted by the perceived “perfection” of the other only to become incredibly disenchanted weeks or months later?  This profound experience of disappointment can lead to a sense of anger and even hatred. One may even conclude suspicion of deliberate deception. Such a reaction diminishes if not destroys the capability of seeking the real value of the other! At this point the relationship has ended before it had really begun.  The tragedy of the imagination!

However, the real tragedy of the imagination is not at the stage of disenchantment, but in the response to this “awakening.”  Numerous are the relationships I have witnessed having degenerated from a sentimentally committed relationship to a “potentially good” relationship. There is nothing wrong with valuing the potential in another, but when a relationship is reduced to a love based upon its potential goodness, it ceases to be a relationship at all. Rather, the one who loves the potential in another has really turned a subject into an object onto which ones own ideological goods are projected.  In other words, the relationship is incapable of love for love demands the gift and reception of the actual value of the other person, not one’s perceived value of the other!

Being faced with the Christian understanding of love, the pope comments:

We love the person complete with all his or her virtues and faults, and up to a point independently of those virtues and in spite of those faults.  The strength of such a love emerges most clearly when the beloved person stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or even sins come into the open.  One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them.  For the person as such never loses its essential value.  The emotion which attaches itself to the value of the person remains loyal to the human being. (L&R,  135)

The Christian call to love is a difficult reality to live.  Without the redemption afforded to us through Jesus Christ, the most we can hope for is either coping mechanisms or suppressive tactics against our distorted desires lest we fall into indulgence.  The Christian no longer needs to look at the raw material of love with fear and trepidation. Rather, Grace is afforded us in the redemption of the body so that we may live authentically human lives of love imbued with divine love.  May we all open our hearts wider to our Lord so that we may have the capacity to embrace the raw materials of love as they were intended to be embraced.  Not as an end leading to objectification, but as a powerful means to draw ever closer to the value or unrepeatability of the other!  Do we not also want to be loved for who we actually are? May God be Praised!

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Great insight! Does this Tragedy of the Imagination also exist for other pursuits? For example a job or a major seems so great as you imagine the future, but you may be imagining these desires which ends up not as great as imagined. Also if that is the case, is it easy to distinguish the line between realistic goals and hopes to just puffing up the potential with imagination?