Failure of Imagination

It was really hard to get myself to start working this morning.

I woke to a Facebook newsfeed of arguments about gun control, rebukes of Donald Trump’s ongoing islamophobic statements, posts crossing out #PrayforOrlando in favor of #PolicyChangeforOrlando, members of the LBGTQ community expressing personal fear and outrage, and on and on. Even posts on the positive end – plans for candlelight vigils around the country and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerful sonnet at the Tony’s – just served as reminders of what happened this weekend in Orlando, of the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

Often, I can convince myself that the best thing to do after such events is to keep living my life, to not let fear or anger or sorrow prevent me from that. But today it was hard. Today it felt like a day spent revising a grant, drafting residency documentation, confirming conference travel plans, and researching game mechanics, was pretty meaningless: who am I kidding, arguing for the importance of art when there are people being shot and killed senselessly at a place of joy and community and celebration?

Then I remembered something: I’ve had this conversation before. Back in December, the San Bernardino shooting happened halfway through a Cross Pollination residency with Adrienne, Mark Lord, and Shelley Spector. The next morning, they spent a long time talking about how unimportant some of their explorations suddenly felt in the face of the way the world was going, and what they could do to make sure that their time spent together was genuinely worthwhile.

Then Mark shared something that’s stuck with me. When The 9/11 Commission Report was released, he read the whole thing. In one section, they talk about four failures as the root of that attack being possible: failure of policy, failure of capabilities, failure of management, and failure of imagination. Failure of imagination, Mark explained, means that no one imagined that such an attack could happen. The CTC (Counterterrorism Center) never even considered that aircraft could be used as a weapon, so they never did any analyses for what that could look like or how to prevent it. There was no level at which the 9/11 attacks occurred to them, even though it’s their job to think from an enemy’s perspective.

For the failures of policy, capabilities, and management, The 9/11 Commission Report offers pages and pages that discuss how to use political science strategies to make changes and prevent other attacks in the future.

For failure of imagination, there were no suggestions.

If this was one of the primary failures that allowed 9/11 to happen, Mark explained wondering, why are there not more thoughts on ways to solve it? How do people become more imaginative?

Through art. Through creativity. Through a willingness to look at the world from a fantastical lens. Through an experience that transcends reality. Through music and performance and storytelling and visuals that make you feel things or consider perspectives you might never have come to on your own.

I’m not saying attending a couple more plays would have magically given the CTC the creative powers to imagine every possible terrorist attack scenario. And I hate that the kind of imagining they would need to suspect that kind of attack requires believing the absolute worst of humanity. But regardless, the capacity to imagine, whether it’s a happy dream or a nightmarish possibility, is essential. Cultivating the ability to see the world from a multitude of perspectives fundamentally rewires people’s brains, both in how they problem-solve and consider issues in their own lives, and in how they see and respond to other human beings.

And that’s why I have to keep doing this. It may not be a direct response to the horrors that happened this weekend, but creating art that opens minds, develops imagination, and encourages compassion has a role to play, however, small, in making the world a better place to live.

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