Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake, “The Tyger”
If I say the word “tiger,” you probably won’t quiver in fear. What is a tiger to you? You can distinguish between a word or an idea of a tiger and the real experience of a tiger, whatever that is. In fact, you’ve likely never even seen a tiger in the wild. If this were not the case, you would be crippled by psychological terror at the mere mention of scary things like tigers, because their mentioning would evoke a very convincing, yet fully imagined, tiger experience. Plainly put, we would be pretty useless creatures, and go extinct darn quick due to an overly vivid imagination. Fortunately, we humans have developed a fine degree of imagination suppressant within the twists and turns of our noggins to keep us from becoming lunatics every time the word “tiger” is said. Sometimes this noggin system fails, though—a terrifying dream seems real, or a vivid memory brings you to tears, for instance. We have the ability to imagine shockingly realistic experiences, but generally we keep the machinations of our mind in check.
This thought experiment is a useful way to begin understanding the protections and shortcomings of the mind. The suppression of our imagination works both ways, good and bad. Not only does it protect us from frivolous fears, like mistaking the idea of a tiger for the real thing, but it also stops us from fully addressing other ideas that hold real substance—ideas that humans allegedly care about.
Suppose that instead of “tiger,” I say “poverty.” You probably won’t collapse in a puddle of hopeless grief imagining you are one of the 2.7 billion people who struggle to feed the ones they love on $2.50 or less a day.
Suppose I say “violence.” You probably won’t immediately sense the vulnerability of leaving your entire life behind and running away in search of asylum from armed violence, like the 45 million people who did so in 2012 alone.
Suppose I say “oppression.” You probably won’t instantly feel caged by an inability to leave the house on your own, vote in elections, or own property, like many women around the world do.
Poverty, violence, and oppression are not fake tigers, or bad dreams—they exist. Yet we involuntarily disconnect psychologically from such words and ideas, even when those words represent real experiences. Poverty, violence, and oppression exist, but our mental safety net keeps us from grasping their gravity.
To some, poverty is just a word, violence just a word, oppression just a word.
And when I say the word, you probably won’t quiver in fear. What is a word to you? You can distinguish between the word or the idea and the real experience of the word, whatever that is. In fact, you might have never even seen the word. If this were not the case, we would be crippled by psychological terror at the mere mention of scary things like the word, because its mentioning would evoke a very convincing, yet fully imagined, experience of the word. Plainly put, we would be pretty useless creatures, and collapse emotionally from an overly vivid imagination.
Poverty is just a word, violence just a word, oppression just a word.
Fortunately, we humans have developed a fine degree of imagination suppressant within the twists and turns of our noggins to keep us from becoming lunatics every time the word is said. Sometimes this noggin system fails, though—sometimes we feel something and make an empathetic leap—but generally we keep the machinations of our mind in check.
And so, the issue remains: how do we modulate our pesky noggins? In many ways, it is necessary to suppress our imagination in addressing vast topics, for if we were to be brought to a chest-heaving fit of tears by every news story and statistic, living would be too much of a task. While being rocked by emotion is an important first step, in its extreme it is not a sustainable methodology to affect change. In the same way, it is necessary to encourage a deeper imagination in addressing vast topics, in order to fully connect to them. If we were to coldly accept every news story and statistic that came our way, living would be void of care. How do we reinforce caring with enough emotion to make attacking the tigers of our world the habit, not the exception?
Rev. Greg Boyle, S.J., speaks to these concerns in his mantra: “Love is the answer. Community is the location. Tenderness is the methodology.” Love and caring may be what is best, but the necessary emotional leap—the unlocking of your suppressed imagination—that key is turned by the community you live in, and your shared exposure to those tigers. Caring fueled by that emotion—tenderness—then becomes warm methodology, not cold anomaly.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic