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Are We Losing Our Imagination?

The ultimate uniqueness of being human is the never-ending search to imagine better possibilities.
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October 20, 2021
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The state of the national discourse has become so ugly, hostile and tribal it may be eroding one of the great human traits—the power to imagine.

It’s hard to think creatively when you’re always fighting or virtue signaling. Self-righteousness, snark and smugness—three of the more popular tones of the day—are ideally suited to snuff out the innocent tendency to dream and imagine.

We may be “rational animals” pursuing knowledge for its own sake and living “by art and reasoning,” as Aristotle wrote 2,000 years ago, comparing us to other species. But the great philosopher could never have imagined a time when digital instruments would allow anyone to attack, pester and demean anyone else in a nanosecond. Our Twitter age of rage is the very antithesis of “pursuing knowledge for its own sake” and “living by art and reasoning.”

And yet, we are also madly enchanted with our digital lives—with the ability to Facetime with family members 8,000 miles away, with access to vast knowledge within seconds, with a greater array of quality entertainment than at any time in history.

But even then, let’s be honest, we are recipients and consumers more than we are creators. This is our dual reality: Whether we’re in attack mode or consumption mode, our digital addictions have dimmed the fires of our imagination. It’s a high price to pay for the convenience of instant everything.

Whether we’re in attack mode or consumption mode, our digital addictions have dimmed the fires of our imagination. It’s a high price to pay for the convenience of instant everything.

One hope for salvation is the simplicity of nature, preferably nature with terrible Wifi.

Nature is also a metaphor for any place of serenity and harmony that allows us to reconnect with our deeper selves. In my recent visit to the mystical city of Tsfat in northern Israel, I would see people pray at the break of dawn, with dramatic views of the Galilee in the background. That felt like harmony and serenity to me.

Things like meditation, mindfulness training, silent retreats, nature hikes and escaping to the great outdoors are all humanity’s way of regaining what digitized life is sucking from us. They are spaces where human imagination can still triumph over the cerebral junk food of a nasty Twitter troll. It’s telling that a primary use of our imagination today is at the service of regaining our imagination.

Judaism offers an ancient instrument that also reaffirms the best of our human traits, and is eons away from any Wifi connection.

It’s called Shabbat.

Judaism offers an ancient instrument that also reaffirms the best of our human traits, and is eons away from any Wifi connection. It’s called Shabbat.

For one day a week, we float in what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called a “sanctuary of time.” Sanctuary is the perfect term to describe a place where we can slow down, calm down and reconsider the things that matter most.

And one of those things must surely be, “How do we best use our time here on earth?”

When we ponder such questions in a sanctuary of time, the answers reside in the questions: Is our time best spent fighting or creating? What gives us more joy, consuming or imagining? Are we happier pursuing knowledge for its own sake or pursuing knowledge to take someone down? Is human connection more rewarding than mindless confrontation?

The ultimate uniqueness of being human is the never-ending search to imagine better possibilities. Just as our tech geniuses keep imagining more digital tools to keep us constantly hooked, we must stay ahead of these possibilities and imagine our own paths to more meaningful and creative lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

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