Moral Imagination Filling Our Children with Good ThingsJAMES DUFFY
Imagination will work on what we give it. If Pokemon and Terminator are the only things feeding the imagination, then they will form our dreams, too.
I'll bet with that snippet of a story your thoughts were starting to jump ahead of Michael. We all need to imagine; it's healthy. And we can imagine any number of things, but there's a point where our imagination touches our core, to form who we are and what we believe. There we enter the moral imagination. There our imagination weaves into the fabric of our being.
Feeding the imagination well helps determine our whole moral stature, just like eating well helps us stay healthy. Architects, marketers, writers, teachers, and mothers need a healthy dose of imagination to keep their jobs moving along well. Realizing this, people want good material to feed their children's imagination. One setback is that most of the work is defensive. People work hard to ward off the negative influences out there, and are not left with the energy to create new and good replacements. Kids get left in the middle, with few bad influences, and few good ones.
First, a little background. Within human reason, or the intellect, we have a capacity that allows us to reach past what we have and dream new things, new goals, and to then dream up ways to achieve these goals. Einstein imagined a possible curved space - then proved it. Thomas Kinkade imagined the play of light in scenes then painted it. These and the myriad other uses of imagination are still fairly external, just the practical workings of things. Imagination deals with much more than the external, pragmatic queries of "how to." What enters the imagination helps form our personalities and convictions.
Imagination touches our spiritual lives. Prayer, any of the great saints will tell you, needs to captivate the imagination. Most mental prayer centers on imagining yourself within the scene, with Mary Magdalene there, scared, and Jesus bending before you and all the other onlookers to run his finger through the sand. Prayer depends on it, and even the beatific vision, once we reach heaven, will involve imagination. "Thus Paul . . . by the very vision of the divine essence, can form in himself the likenesses of the things that are seen in the divine essence, which remained in Paul even when he had ceased to see the essence of God." St. Thomas Aquinas said this to describe how St. Paul could imagine God after his "out of body" experience of Him. The soul, where the imagination sits, is capable of keeping an image, an imagination, of God. I can't think of a better argument to favor the development of the imagination. Positive Image
Imagination is innately positive; it reaches out for new, unexplored, and not yet experienced realities. So why do so many focus only on eliminating the negative? Not that any problem exists with voicing that violent video games or lewd movies should not be promoted in civil society. Those campaigns should be staged. However, more time and effort is dedicated to eliminating the evil than to promoting the good. But if all the evil influences that could invade our imagination were gone, a void would exist. Eliminating the bad without replacing it with the good is repression. Subduing, or repressing a desire is not always a bad thing; giving up chocolate for Lent is a repression of an innate desire. But a sweet tooth is not an essential and irrepressible force. Imagination is both essential and irrepressible. It is also blind, much like the sexual drive, and needs to be trained to work right, not simply ignored. One thing is certain: The imagination will work. Creating aids for a moral imagination requires a lot more imagination to create. And it requires a lot more work than even the biggest of "stop" campaigns. But in the long run, a lot more is accomplished.
How many of us have complained that society forces kids to grow up too fast? A valid complaint, begging a response. Part of the "too fast" part comes wrapped in negative influences on the imagination, experienced at entirely too young an age. Yet, we have to recognize that if there are no alternatives, kids will imagine based on what there is. Alternatives need to be provided for our kids. Take Catholic Kids Net, a positive response by a group of mothers in Dallas. They put together a monthly do-it-yourself kit that stimulates young kids from about 6-10 years, with imaginative ways of growing in friendship with one another and with Jesus, and developing fun habits of virtue. The project requires much work and imagination on the part of the team to think up the activities, put together the magazine, and help local groups to work with the material. But their proactive response will definitely have a longer lasting positive result for children than any number of defensive, "stop" campaigns.
Imagination is unstoppable. Rather than collectively dedicating our efforts to yelling about how bad the bad feeders of imagination really are, more of us should take matters into our own hands and work for or with something that gives a good alternative. Try reading to the kids. Hundreds of stories are out there that highly entertain the imagination. Lord of the Rings will capture the imagination of children from a surprisingly young age. Before working up to Tolkien, however, there are still quite a number of good books which stretch the imagination. Reading forms convictions and will be the source of developing a moral imagination faster than nearly anything else, short of playing with their friends.
Tending the Garden
Imagination is like a garden. Anyone with a green thumb will tell you that it isn't enough to pull the weeds and make sure they don't choke the plants. That ensures the plants will not die, but that's just the start. The finesse that ensures plants will bear fruit is in the pruning, fertilizing, and watering. Most of us, without green thumbs, have seen our scrawny little plants survive, but hardly flourish. We have probably also seen boys or girls who have been rather well protected from the evil influences that abound just outside the walls of the family, but who have stilted and scrawny personalities. This is probably better than a warped imagination running wild, but not the same as a well-developed, good imagination that opens up possibilities and creates a good personality.
Underdeveloped personalities can result from the justifiable inclination that can be described as a "no" mentality. No, you cannot watch television. No, you cannot go to the movies. No, you cannot read those books. No, you cannot run around with those kids. There's nothing wrong with that at least not in contemporary western society. My point is that the "no" is only a first step, and the next and most important step is often not given enough attention.
Another positive initiative is a movie production company called CCC of America. They produce well-made and entertaining animation of the lives of the saints and other great Christian heroes. How many movies have we all been picketing or boycotting recently, while the CCC guys are working twice as hard to put out good shows that stimulate a moral imagination. Kids see themselves as St. Francis Xavier heading off to the Orient to convert the Japanese, or St. Bernadette, up against all odds, remaining faithful to her conscience. Not to make a plug for any particular initiative, but what could happen if we spent as much time and energy passing these films on as we did complaining with friends and neighbors about the evils of Hollywood and Saturday morning cartoons?
Balance and Harmony
The Greeks and Romans placed a great emphasis on harmony. The Parthenon, arguably the most beautiful temple of ancient times, was patterned on harmony, taking man as its measure. The columns were constructed to seven times the height of man. Balance as an integral aspect of beauty has been recognized throughout the ages, and yes, is going by the wayside now. The recent scandalous display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is proof enough.
Beauty is attractive. And as much as virtue is often portrayed as being simple-minded or prudish by the media, a balanced virtue and masculinity is attractive to boys and men! And a balance of virtue with an appealing femininity is attractive to young women. That attraction can't be uprooted by any media trick or contrary models. Sex symbols and tough guys are no match for valiant saints and heroic women.
Imagination will work on what we give it. If Pokemon and Terminator are the only things feeding the imagination, then they will form our dreams, too. But if stories of heroic virtue and of manly, holy deeds feed the imagination, perhaps great feats will ensue and, better yet, great and beautiful people will work on those ideas.
Practically, I suggest a paradigm shift. From working on avoiding the negative, we could, and should, move to living the positive. The majority of our efforts should be directed at providing a torrent of good material. Then we will lay the positive, attractive items at the feet of the younger generation. If we begin to work in the proactive paradigm, then more work, not less, will be required of us. As will more, well, imagination.
Duffy, James "Moral Imagination Filling Our Children with Good Things." Lay Witness 21 no. 4 (May 2000).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness.
James Duffy writes from Atlanta, GA.
For more information about ordering children's videos from CCC of America, visit their web site at www.cccofamerica.com or call 1-800-935-2222.
Copyright © 2000 Lay Witness
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