“What we have here is a failure to communicate” runs an old line and with all the conflict in the world reaching epidemic proportions, that is the understatement of the millennium. But more that that is our failure to “imaginate”—ie, to imagine beyond the narrow confines of our upbringing, our assumptions, our inherited valued system, our small understandings and more. It is our failure to imagine that is causing such grief to ourselves and our failure to imagine the other that is causing such grief to others.
To come at this backwards, the definition of a psychopath is one who chronically fails to imagine the other, who cannot perceive or empathize with the needs and qualities of another human being. Mafia hit-men, serial killers, terrorists are those who by genetic defects, personal psychological trauma or cultivated philosophies of denial can kill without remorse because they cannot feel the pain of another human being. At the next level down are the socially accepted and often lionized entrepreneurs out to sell you something you don’t need—MacDonald’s Ray Kroc, the Wolves of Wall Street. Then there are the religious fundamentalists who insist that only those who believe their particular version of the Bible or Koran or what have you will be saved and all the rest damned to eternal hellfire, even if it be your best friend who happens to be Jewish. Add together the collective psychopathologies of preying capitalists with religious fundamentalists with mentally disturbed individuals with easy access to assault weapons and you got yourself a pretty scary world.
And it gets worse. On the national political stage in the United States at the moment, a raving lunatic is bringing psychopathology to a new level of acceptance and the terrifying prospect that he actually stands a chance of becoming the next President is a nightmare so horrific that people are becoming nostalgic for Sarah Palin. Consider these defining characteristics of a psychopath as given by Dr. William Hirstein in an article in Psychology Today and try to imagine which current political figure they describe:
• Uncaring: callous, coldheartedness, showing a lack of empathy
• Shallow emotions: No shame, guilt or embarrassment.
• Irresponsibility: Always blaming others for problems
• Insincere speech: From glibness and superficial charm to outright pathological lying, devaluing speech by inflating it toward selfish ends. Conning others for personal profit.
• Overconfidence: A grandiose sense of self worth.
• Selfishness: A pathological egocentricity.
Got it? Scary, huh?
And so along with stringent gun control laws and presidential job qualification standards, the deep core of healing can be found in the educated imagination. The ability to imagine the other, to imagine multiple solutions, to imagine a world better than the one presented to us in the daily news is not a fringe benefit of good schooling—it is (or should be) its very mission.
How to awaken and train the imagination? It starts with redefining education as a grand question that leads to other questions (not computer-checked-answers on standardized tests). It begins by lifting children into stories where they learn to identify with characters so different from—and so similar to— themselves. It commits to a genuine multi-cultural literacy where said characters might be from Ethiopia, Argentina, Bora Bora or Bulgaria, but with the same beating hearts and heartbreaking tales, the same failure to love and be loved and the same hopes for redemption. It trains children to draw from multiple sources, to hear multiple sides of the same story, to hold opposition together in their minds and learn to savor and value diverse perspectives. And of course, it includes the arts, not just paint-by-number or reading notes, but digging into the imagination through constant acts of creation. Developing the flexible mind that can shift melodies like great jazz improvisers, find its own blend of colors and shapes and images, not only imagine the other, but put their character on for size in a dramatic production.
Then all the psychopath's characteristic failings will be flipped and the citizen of the future will be caring, capable of carrying deep emotion, responsible (to their own genius and to the community spirit) sincere and eloquent in speech, confident sprinkled with some healthy doubt, humility and vulnerability, and selfless.
Let’s get to work.