There is nothing I should care more to do…than to ROUSE the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs.
- George Eliot
When we think of inspiration, reimagination is often at the heart. When we are inspired, we see the world anew, as if a burning brand has revealed possibilities that before lay hidden in the shadows. “Yes!”, we find ourselves saying, “I see how things can be different now!”
I’m not talking about idle speculation, about daydreaming. This is why I write of REimagination, rather than imagination simpliciter: inspiration is the art of taking someone’s current understanding and imaginings, and reshaping them so that a new conception arises, breaking down barriers to thought and enabling the reimagination of the world.
To do this we must communicate a positive vision of a better future. But effective visions are more than airy descriptions of hoped-for utopias: certainly we must use soaring rhetoric which articulates our vision in a gripping and thrilling way, but we must also make our vision concrete `and plausible. We want to be seen as bold dreamers, for sure, but not air-headed, starry-eyed, whimsy-mongers. For our visions to seem palpable, and for our reimagination of the world to be effective in inspiring others to act, we need to “paint heaven” (a companion technique to “paint hell”, a critical part of the fifth element of inspiration, injury) and also paint a “stairway to heaven”: a plausible route by which we might get from here to there, or at least a detailed picture of what “heaven” actually looks like. We must send a balloon up into the sky, but keep a firm grip on the string which tethers it to the ground (this is often called a “theory of change”).
Organizer and Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz likes to quote Jewish scholar Maimonides’ definition of hope:
Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.
This quote is not only a useful definition but an essential reminder: if we wish to help people reimagine the future we need to keep our visions of hope plausible.
Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is one of the most effective implementations of the reimagination element ever. You can remind yourself of the power of the speech by watching the clip below:
What’s often forgotten about this momentous reimagination of the future is that it is not a Utopian, hazy image of a distant ideal but a remarkably specific, grounded depiction of a world which has overcome racial injustice. It isn’t the sort of dream which we forget about in the morning, but the sort which remains vivid for years to come, stuck in he mind, a spur to action.
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Note the repeated use of specific, grounded details: details which make the vision seem far more plausible. The airy, abstract notions of equality, freedom, and justice are given weight by the images of “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” sitting at table together “on the red hills of Georgia”, of children holding hands “as sisters and brothers”. Throughout the speech King mixes metaphor with specific detail, grounding his vision in reality, tethering his balloon to the ground: Mississippi is “sweltering with the heat of injustice” – a metaphor which works well because Mississippi is hot in reality – while the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners are sitting together “at the table of brotherhood” – the table is both literal and metaphorical, balloon and tether both.
Stairway to Heaven
If you create a detailed, plausible vision of the future, people might be motivated to act to achieve it – but you still have to show them how to get there. Visions which seem implausible encourage dismissal, not reimagination. After you paint heaven, you’ve got to build a stairway which takes you to the promised land. Again, the key is specificity: like giving directions to a tourist, you want to offer simple, step-by-step route from the current situation to the reimagined future.
The Girl Effect’s amazing animated video does this exquisitely:
Note how the video offers a step-by-step process by which we can move from our current situation – the “hell” of hunger, poverty, and HIV – to “heaven”, the reimagined future. Note, too, how it reinforces this theory of change at the end, asking “Are you following what’s happening here?”, then proceeding to reiterate each step in their stairway. Without the stairway, the idea that helping one girl out of poverty could change the world might seem unreal, even absurd: the balloon floats away without a tether. With the stairway, the vision seems concrete, achievable, tangible. It helps us reimagine the world.
Reimagination is a key element of inspiration: we have to help people dream big dreams and see the future differently. These visions, though, must be specific, vivid, concrete – our hope must be plausible - and they must seem achievable by us. So, paint heaven, and then build a stairway which helps us get there.
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