Reversing Imagination Atrophy: A New Year’s Resolution for Our Times
I am a doer, not a hoper. I’m a planner, not a dreamer. I look at the dark, scary stuff head on, unflinchingly. I think in terms of contingencies and what ifs, but usually to mitigate downside risk (a lasting legacy from years as a corporate attorney).
The last few years have taken their toll on me. There has been way too much to worry about. Closest in I fretted about keeping my family safe during the pandemic and restoring trust in science and vaccines, about whether NYC would bounce back and how to make my neighborhood feel like a neighborhood I want to live in again, with safe streets, no rats and mounds of trash, vibrant streetscapes and fewer unhoused people suffering in plain view. Further out, I worried that America could become authoritarian or illiberal, a kleptocracy, a Christian theocracy, or all of the above, and that “others” like me (I am Jewish but this fear applies to so many people in America today) will no longer feel safe being who we are, fully and without hiding. Even further out, I worried about future generations and the planet. Could we stop hoarding resources today, preserving the status quo and entrenched interests, and invest instead in a future our descendants would happily inhabit?
Since I work on democracy issues, there was no escaping the doom and gloom. So I made a consequential pivot. I self-medicated by looking for the thinkers, doers and creatives who were not like me, who were not simply engaging in reaction and critique but who were dreaming big and seeing what is already or could be around the corner. It’s what Solutions Journalism Network’s David Bornstein calls “positive deviants.” I wanted to learn from them about imagining and building better futures. So I spent 2022 talking to dozens of these visionaries and realizing, painfully, just how small my dreams had gotten, how narrow my aperture of the possible had become. I needed an exercise regimen for my atrophied imagination muscles. Desperately.
Luckily, I met some amazing and inspiring people this year who have rekindled my faith that we have control over our future IF we imagine it and then work together to bring it into being. You can learn more about them in Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy, a report I wrote with Democracy Funders Network.
So as you make your list of New Year’s resolutions, in addition to walking more, eating healthfully, ditching toxic relationships, and following your passions, make sure to add being “futures-ready.” To me that means embracing the fundamental uncertainty all around us during these times of extreme flux and rapid change, exercising our underutilized imagination muscles and dreaming bigger (there are tons of books, guides and games about this in my report), and holding onto assumptions much more lightly. Finally, it means thinking and acting like responsible ancestors and leaving a positive legacy for those who follow us.
I’m ushering in 2023 with a glass more than half full for a change. I wish that for you too.
Happy New Year!