Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the word “unimaginable” and what it means to not be able to imagine something. It’s because my ears have been pricked to the word’s overuse, and to my mind, misuse.
Like most people, I watched and read the news last December and saw the word “unimaginable” employed to recount several incidents of human depravity. I’m referring specifically to the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings on Dec. 14, 2012, and the gang rape and murder, two days later, of a young woman in New Delhi, India. Journalists reporting on the murders and rape used the word “unimaginable” to describe the events and their emotional aftermath, but I thought just the opposite. The acts were incomprehensible, and seemingly indescribable, but not unimaginable. In fact, I’d venture that imagining, or even half imagining the horror, brutality, pain, and anguish of the victims and their loved ones is something that makes us all truly human. If I can’t imagine someone’s pain, then how can I be truly empathetic? And if I can’t be empathetic, then have I not lost something vital and significant to my being?
I think it is important to think about what is “unimaginable” in the context of not-for-profit agencies such as the YWCA Niagara Region. Some of the YW’s funders, workers, and volunteers have lived through their own “unimaginable” circumstances in life. They know what it is like to live in fear and be without material means, home, and hope. And this is why they want to change things for others by giving their money, expertise, and time in supporting an organization that imagines change. But the great majority of the YWs funders and supporters have not been homeless. Some have never grappled with a loss of income or family support, or any of the myriad of circumstances that lead to homelessness. They don’t have first-hand experience of the daily indignities and constant anxiety of poverty. Some have lived lives of privilege. But they believe in what the YW does and they support change because imagining the unimaginable makes them a part of the human community.
A year or so ago, I was lucky enough to see South African poet Antjie Krog
read and discuss her work at Brock University. Krog’s 1988 book Country of My Skull
is an examination of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, a narrative on personal and national history, and an exploration of the philosophy of ubuntu, or “shared humanity”. It is a compelling read and Krog is a compelling writer and poet. At her Brock reading, she talked about the continual unfolding (for her and others) of the meaning of ubuntu.
In connection with the TRC, ubuntu means forgiveness, reconciliation, and becoming whole, or human again after a brutal history of oppression. It also means a reaffirmation of human interconnectedness. It’s this idea of human interconnectedness that resonates with me. I think it is what makes imagining the unimaginable (both good and bad) possible. If humans exist in relation to others, the pain and degradation of others then diminishes all of us.
|Michelangelo knew that becoming human required imagination.
In his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier (humanitarian and L’Arche community founder) notes that “the discovery of our common humanity liberates us from self-centred compulsions and inner hurts…it is the process of becoming truly human.” So, the small act of imagining another’s circumstances, even if those circumstances are difficult to fully grasp, can help us make viable links with others. It can help us belong to a greater whole and possibly motivate us to make change that helps others become whole — and by doing so, restore our wholeness too . It’s something to think about the next time we are confronted with the “unimaginable” difficulties and brutalities of our fellow human beings.