Enlightenment and modernity have been, to a very large extent, projects informed by intellectual dreams. Hopeful and exciting at first, they have not worked out so well in the long run. Yet many of us uncivvers are thinkers and dreamers; some adamantly so. Nothing wrong with it per se, except…
What niggles me is this: we are the descendants of people who put forth fertile, creative, and sometimes downright wondrous imaginings. It was not for lack of imagination that their lives led the way, nevertheless, toward the mess in which we are mired today. It was for lack of being different, for failing to embody a new way of being in the world, for not living the beginnings of another future. I am finding myself out of patience with stand-alone imaginings. I suspect they give us a false sense that something useful is being done. But imagining chickens in my yard will not get me eggs. It may inspire others to put chickens in their yards…. But what if I imagine chickens in the yard while not really liking eggs, or if I would prefer not to have neighbors’ chickens under my bedroom window, or if I am not intending to go into the trouble of buying local, or if I would rather that others, not me, flaunt anti-chicken laws? There surely is a point at which imagination crosses the line into idle fancy or hypocrisy. Or, at the very least, into imagination misapplied.
Rousseau dreamed up wonderful new ways to educate girls and boys, while forcing his common-law wife to surrender their four babies to an orphanage, which in those days meant abuse and almost certain death at an early age. He imagined happy, well cared for children, but lived the reality of their gross neglect. Lenin had visions of a revolution bringing harmony and well-being to all while spinning intrigue and discord and undermining allies who disagreed with him, then launching a revolution that hunted down and murdered the opposition. Thomas Moore dreamed of profound and universal religious tolerance in Utopia while breaking down heretics in his own private torture chamber and gladly consigning them to the pyre. He wanted a tolerant commonwealth but lived (and died) embodying the persecution of those who disagreed with the prevailing orthodoxy. And America’s Founders wrote about the inalienable rights of all people while running slave plantations, importing indentured serfs, and crafting documents designed to prevent the rabble running their own affairs. Their dreams remained mostly dreams, and their reality is what they passed on to their descendants.
Imagination unmoored from experience leads, more often than not, toward disappointing destinations. It turns a blind eye to potential negatives while naively amplifying the positives. It gives us a misleading sense of what needs to be done, what can be done. Even that something is being done. To return to my analogy, if I would rather buy eggs at the store, then perhaps I shouldn’t be crafting local egg stories that are not cognizant of the actual impact of city chickens. Maybe I should even consider the possibility that my inspiring chicken stories are an attempt to ride easy on the coattails of others who assume all the risk, including any risk my fancies have lured them into. As that arch-hypocrite Tolstoy found the hard way, “until you do what you believe in, you don’t know whether you believe it or not.” My impression is that our world does not need more hollow imaginings, any more than it needs more gadgets. If producing those two made a difference in turning civ around, we’d have already done it. What the world needs, it seems to me, is people who attempt, however imperfectly, to be and live what they imagine, fall into error, and pick themselves up, and change their imaginings based on what they learned out in the world, and start again.
This point can be confusing. People think that the challenge of translating dreams into reality means activism. If you want fresh eggs available to your neighborhood, you get a campaign going with meetings, impassioned rhetoric, marching orders, slogans and publicity. But there is another, much more permanent and satisfying way of translating dreams into reality. It is by embodying them in my own life, touching others with my new way of being and helping it spread. I co-create a local egg culture by becoming a person who understands the value of truly fresh food, eats only local eggs, grows her own or strikes up supportive relationships with local growers, participates in farmers’ markets, and inspires others through not only enthusiasm but also tried-and-true, emulable behavior.
Dreams don’t mean diddly, all by themselves. They are a dime a dozen, just like any other ideas. What matters is dreams “made to matter”… dreams that are embodied in living human beings, acted out in the world, learned from, changed, and tried again. Dreams incorporating the good ol’ feedback loop. Applied dreaming is a universal wrench much needed as part of our uncivilization toolbox. You dream of humans getting along? Figure out how to get along with those around you, and pass it on. Dream of a world where humans talk to one another, have deep and creative conversations that lead to action? Then make it happen with your friends first. And if you try and fail, by damn have the guts to admit that perhaps your imaginings need tweaking. Don’t just sit there like an armchair social engineer who dreams stuff up and deplores the flesh-and-blood people -– including her own recalcitrant self — who refuse to get with the program.
If you extol group conversations but find that in reality you don’t like them, then come up with something that does work for you because chances are, there are bazillion other people saying to themselves, “well, hm, I am supposed to converse meaningfully with my neighbors but I don’t really enjoy it, and besides, I don’t really know how, so… so screw it”. Find something that does work for you, and show others.
Dreams unapplied are like maps drawn up by people with little real knowledge of the territory… they may help if we are lucky but greater odds are, they will get us lost. Our uncivilizing ideas and dreams have the same potential to mislead. Hasn’t history shown us over and over that ideation unmodified by reality’s impact, by careful attention to consequences, is a dangerous thing?
The Dark Mountain manifesto says: “Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history.” Ain’t that the favorite myth of us intellectuals, conceptualizers, symbol manipulators, clever dreamers! No need to get off our duff… the pen is mightier than the sword! I believed it myself until a few days ago… I invite you to do a double take: for all the massive upheavals new words and images brought about in the past – the Protestant Revolution is but one example – the dark heart of civilization has remained untouched.
It seems to me that dreaming and manifesting need to proceed together, in a mutually reinforcing and correcting spiral. Living uninformed by dreaming brings more of the same. Dreaming uninformed by living is just idle fancy at best, and misleading fantasy at worst. The people who dream wonderful dreams but live – and perpetuate – a malformed reality, usher in a future where people dream wonderful dreams but live – and perpetuate – a malformed reality.