Month: January 2012

Lost Imagination

If there is one rule that I have learned from the children in my life, it is this: that if children are not given an occupation, they will demonstrate a special capacity to “occupy themselves.” Or, to put it simply, when children have nothing to do, they will find something to do—even if all they can find to do is mischief.  
However quietly he may be sitting, a child will never quiet his imagination; he looks at the world around him with fresh eyes and sees in it fantastic and fabulous things. Any adult knows this truth merely from remembering the time as a child he spent in waiting rooms, or playing alone in his backyard, or following his mother around as she ran errands.  It is as natural to an adult as to a child to seek to occupy oneself somehow—if only with one’s thoughts. It is merely that a man has learned to hide it better. Waiting in the doctor’s office, a child will ask his mother loudly why the lady on the other side of the room looks like Cruella DeVille. The grown man will not ask this aloud—possibly only because his mother is not there to answer—but he will certainly ask it, and perhaps answer it, in the silence of his mind. 
Yet, in our day, moments of simple waiting are nearly obsolete.  From waiting in line at the coffee shop to waiting for a red light to change, in an age of instant communication and entertainment we feel the need to communicate or be entertained not only instantly but constantly.  With our iPhones and blackberries, we now carry with us everywhere the limitless ability to waste moments of waiting.  And that is a death-warrant to our opportunity to contemplate the world about us, and a fatal blow to our imagination.
It was once much less easy to so fill up one’s “waiting” time.  In G.K. Chesterton’s essay “What I Found In My Pocket,” this genial giant of a writer found himself on a train without any regular form of amusement or occupation, having neither book nor newspaper nor anything to write on—and not even any advertisements to look at. “Now I deny most energetically,” Chesterton declares in this desperate situation, “that anything is, or can be, uninteresting.”  That one rule may be called the grounding principle upon which GKC’s philosophy of natural wonder is based—and, true to form, Chesterton lived it out in this particular situation, simply by exploring the contents of his pockets.  Among other things, he discovered a pocket-knife, chalk, and a box of matches.  In each case, his imagination runs wild, inspired by the object he is contemplating: in the pocket-knife he sees “the mystery of the thing called iron and of the thing called steel”; the chalk calls to his mind “all the art and all the frescoes of the world.”  Free from the distractions of daily duties and usual occupations during his train ride, he saw in what could have been a dull time a richly fertile opportunity for his imagination, for him to contemplate the miraculous and mysterious element in every ordinary thing around him, from wood to tram tickets to coins.
Such a child-like attitude and simplicity which can take an unabashed interest in little things is swiftly disappearing—or at least growing decidedly uncommon. The bored child and the bored man in the waiting room who take an interest in the people and things about them are a dying race.  No one in a waiting room sits unoccupied, merely contemplating their surroundings—except the very old and the very young. Nowadays, your average fellow indeed turns to his pockets; but he does not pull out a pocket knife or a piece of chalk. He pulls out a phone and begins texting. Or tweeting. Or checking Facebook. He is occupied; he is entertained; but his imagination is dead.
As Chesterton’s own musings illustrate, an imagination is like the artist in each soul: it cannot flourish except when given time, space, freedom—in short, a blank canvas. If we perpetually fill every free space in our day with some form of entertainment or communication or “networking,” there is no time left to see the beauty and potential of realities right under our noses; no time to imagine, to contemplate; no time left for our own creation. 

Pure to the Pure

In the 1941 British film Pimpernel Smith, Leslie Howard plays a seemingly-mild-mannered archeologist history professor who secretly rescues fellow intellectuals from the clutches of the Nazis. In one scene, at a high-society soirée, the professor refers innocently in the course of a conversation to the fact that the ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite he unearthed was (of course) nude.  Shocked by his frank simplicity, the prim-and-proper bystanders are a bit flustered; the Professor, realizing their embarrassment, mildly replies; “Oh, well, to the pure all things are pure.”

When I saw this film for the first time, this quote fascinated me, so I determined to look it up. As it turns out, the line originates with St. Paul, who wrote in his letter to Titus: “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted.”  
This little line struck me so deeply because, as I recently studied in a philosophy class on Ethics, there is a fundamental connection between the way we perceive things and our purity of heart.  During the course, we reviewed the writings of Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper on chastity in The Four Cardinal VirtuesSelfishness is blinding, he argues, because it makes one see only one’s own private good as good.  Unchastity, then, is uniquely blinding because it is uniquely selfish in an area—sexuality—where man is called to be especially unselfish.  Our purity of heart or lack thereof, Pieper concludes, dramatically affects our moral vision. On the other side of the coin, chastity makes you see things clearly, as they really are.
Pieper’s point makes perfect sense, and coincides exactly with Paul’s.  A person who sees things through the lens of purity will not see indecency or innuendo where there is none to be seen; but the man who sees all things by the light (or darkness, rather) of unchastity will see sinfulness in all things.  Adam and Eve saw each other’s nakedness with pure eyes before the Fall; once their vision was altered by sin, they felt the need to cover themselves. Similarly, Michelangelo’s paintings that bedeck the Sistine Chapel have been condemned by various puritanically-minded groups and figures throughout history who felt they were more pornographic than sacred. But John Paul II reverently defended the artwork, calling the Sistine Chapel the “sanctuary of the theology of the body.”  
As coming across that line from Paul in the context of the film made me realize, what Paul and Pieper say easily applies not only to art but to daily conversations and thoughts. The first incident that came to my mind was when I recently recommended a song to someone. “The lyrics are very sweet,” I said, “Except for one line which implies something inappropriate.” When my companion asked me what the line was, I told him; with a puzzled look on his face, he replied, “Um, that doesn’t have to be something bad.  That could be interpreted as something wholesome.”  I felt abashed by my friend’s purity of heart. Where I followed the trail of innuendo, his thoughts remained on a simpler, more innocent plane.
Impurity in our hearts can especially affect daily conversation in the realm of gossip—when a nasty rumor spreads quickly around a community and swiftly mushrooms completely out of proportion.  One foul mind can defile a situation by its own perception, and pass it on thus contaminated to others.  Take, for instance, the story of Marian the librarian in The Music Man.  “She was seen going and coming from his house,” the chattering ladies of town begin whispering to each other, and the mutterings crescendo to wild misjudgments of her character: “She made brazen overtures!”  As it turns out, Marian’s actions—paying a visit to a family friend—were completely innocent, but the society gossipers saw her only through their own tainted lens.
It is so easy to make similar misjudgments of others, to unfairly project motivations or actions onto the characters of others: to assume, for instance that the elderly lady in the back of church prays loudly for attention, not because her hearing aid is off; or that the person who leaves daily Mass early does so disrespectfully, and not because it is the only way he can both attend Mass daily and make it to work on time; or that the young woman in the supermarket dresses immodestly for deliberately sinful reasons, rather than out of simple ignorance.
But to the pure, all things are pure.  So we must strive to be supremely careful in our judgments of others, because if we take a look at the way we see others, it will be a reflection not of their character, but of ours.  Our sin clouds our vision of our neighbor—and that means that ultimately it clouds our vision of God.  Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.