A few nights ago my youngest son was in tears.
I laid down on his bed with him and asked him what was going on and he told me that he’d been thinking that the next time he visited the dentist the dentist would cut out all his teeth.
He was crying because he was picturing going to school the next day with nothing but towels in his mouth where his teeth had been. He was picturing all the other students laughing at him. He was imagining the principal and teachers laughing at him.
I’ve learned a lot in my 14 years as a father.
There was a time, early on, I would have just tried to console him by telling him “that’s ridiculous – of course that wouldn’t happen”. But that doesn’t really work – fears don’t just instantly dissolve, and he would have felt silly or discounted on top of it.
There was a time where I would have just sat and listened without saying much, thinking that I’d just let him cry it out and come to his own conclusion that his fear wasn’t likely. But that doesn’t really work, either – he would just end up exhausted and with the image still lingering in his head.
The other night I tried something new. I held his hand and let him tell me his story. I didn’t try to stop his tears. When he’d calmed down some I asked him to tell me about what sort of things he saw when he was at the dentist. I let him come to the realization that his brother, mother and I all go to the same dentist and that we weren’t likely to choose a nefarious, malicious practitioner (our insurance only covers up to grumpy, not evil.) When he’d calmed enough that we could just have a quiet conversation I asked him to imagine what a great dentist visit would look like. What would he want to see there? He lit up and talked about how it’d be great if they’d put a television on the ceiling. Video games in the lobby. Headphones while he was in the chair. All the things you would expect a 10-year-old boy in 2018 to be interested in.
I’ve learned that shaming doesn’t work well when addressing fears. It may stop the tears, but nothing more. I’ve learned that crying it out isn’t fulfilling.
I’ve learned the power of imagination.
I thought about this recently as I read about all the struggles we seem to be going through as a country. We seem to be caught up in a cycle of fear: fear that wealthy will hoard all the money and leave the middle class and poor with nothing. Fear that the poor are just lazy and wish to live on nothing but handouts. Fear that people of color are dangerous or inferior. Fear of women, fear of sexuality, fear of shifting gender identities. Fear for our planet.
Valid fears, all of them. And it’s important to listen deeply to those fears and sort out what’s real and what’s imagined.
But what’s most important is that we fix in our imaginations something beyond those fears.
I can imagine a future where a person of color is just thought of as just a “person” and respected for their individual uniqueness, their perspectives, their struggles and their accomplishments.
I can imagine a future where all people can feel safe in their own communities and safe travelling between communities.
I can imagine a future where all people can view the police as allies.
I can imagine a future where females know they’ll be paid equally for their efforts. A future where harassment and assault are dealt with swiftly and justly and where they’re not expected to assume some sort of guilt merely for being attractive or vulnerable.
I can imagine a future where people feel safe enough in their gender and sexuality that there is no need to “come out”, just as there currently is no need for a straight, cis-gender person to reveal themselves.
I can imagine a future where we’ve recognized that faith journeys are often challenging and that we can give space to each other to follow our own paths and not view other paths as evil for merely being different.
I can imagine a future where we’ve recognized that a healthy population is beneficial to all of us and we’ve found a way to ensure adequate care without bankrupting ourselves or the nation.
I can imagine a future where we’ve recognized that an educated population is beneficial to all of us and we’ve found a way to provide for that without saddling students with decades of debt.
I can imagine a future where we’ve harnessed the wind and the sun and the tides and undiscovered sources of energy to wean us off a steadily shrinking supply of fossil fuels.
I can imagine a future where our political leaders seek to inspire us, to unite us and selflessly guide us towards a future full of promise, hope and opportunity for all.
I can imagine a promising future for us. One of hope. One of wisdom. One of tolerance and respect. One of joy.
What I can’t imagine?
Settling for less than all of that.
“The courage to imagine the otherwise is our greatest resource, adding color and suspense to all our life.” – Daniel J. Boorstin, historian and 12th Librarian of Congress