June 18, 2020 Repository 229: Imagination Breeds Empathy Posted In: kindness, perspective, social critique

Once upon a time in Maryland a young boy named Deamonte lived with his Mom and brother. When he was 12 he came down with a toothache. His Mom looked all around for a dentist to care for him, though no one would take Medicaid. Deamonte did not complain. 

At the same time in 2007, though up north in the borough of Queens New York, a woman took a cab to the old building of Ps1 which is now the property of the Museum of Modern Art, and will become the showcase that is MOMA Ps1, highlighting some of the most sought after, expensive and cutting edge artwork in the world.

Deamonte remains in Maryland with his toothache, and living in poverty. His mother is unable to pay the $80 dentist bill.

When I first visited Ps1, I called my father who grew up in Queens, as an ex-artist I thought he would appreciate that this bastion of fine art was now a staple in his old stomping grounds. My Dad grew up poor, and he shared with me on the phone that he used to go to Ps1 when he and his brothers needed to get their teeth checked. Apparently it was a vocational high school in the 40s and 50s, where dentists in training would do work with the community for little or no money in order to prepare them for their practices. So there I sat listening to my Dad, sitting on a stoop trying to imagine his little self here, with maybe a toothache, which was really hard to do given the new aesthetic of the building, with the untouchable cleanliness of modern art, mixed with the alternative use space vibe that has been going strong since the 70s.

Returning to our young man in Maryland, his toothache persists and is now infected. He is hospitalized for two weeks, has two surgeries, and now Mom owes over $250,000 in medical bills. His infection reached his brain, and he could not be saved. Deamonte died at the age of 12, and leaves behind a family in great pain and anger. The abscess could have been prevented with a $1 fluoride varnish. 

The Mom dived into her pain and anger and trained to become a dental assistant. Years later she continues this and there is now a Deamonte Driver Dental Project that includes a mobile program where volunteer dentists treat the poor communities as best as they can.

Can you imagine?

I share this as a short, disconnected story because I hope it turned on your “imagination”. Imagination is not for playtime, not for art, not for dreaming and escaping. Imagination is required in order to have empathy. Imagination is mandatory for understanding. Art is designed to nurture this disparity of understanding between humans.

Privilege, Isolation, Violence, Systemic, Meaningless, Absurdity, Pivot, Anti-blackness, Fragility, Empty, New Normal, Oppression, Fragility. Do not let these words confuse you, do not let these words anger you. They are tools for serious change. But mostly Imagination and Empathy, these are also incredible tools to enact change. 

I’ve read the plea from Martin Luther King Jr. (noted below) for moderates to move, shout, share, support. I’m here, I see you, I feel you, and I’m doing what I can locally in my house and in my community to create change. So where does art, scent, and activism land? There has never been a more important time to harness our imagination, in order to feel empathy for all of our brothers and sisters. 

Imagination is not for escape, imagination is a way to try on someone else’s pants and feel all of the things. I don’t mean walk in their shoes – you can’t do that, though you can and must imagine the actions and specificities in their lives in order to create a bridge that either makes clear the gap or brings you closer. Imagination is power: it is sacred and it is terrifying.

We’re in a culture that breeds distraction, fear, and insecurity – what if we were so secure and focused in our empathy for others that we enacted change? What if we trusted the imagination that allowed us to feel what it’s like to be black, to be a woman, to be a child, to be homeless, to be insane?

Imagination and empathy will build beautiful safe places.

Where is scent in all of this? Scent is the fuel to driving and developing your emphatic imagination: when you sit still with a scent, when you can’t describe it, and it baffles you, you are in a growing place where you are building your tolerance to ambiguity and mystery. Life is a mystery, and it’s most precious moments are immaterial. The effects of scent are such: immaterial. As my mentors have said and made a beautiful artwork with: “Invest in the immaterial.”

Rosenclaire, “Invest in the Immaterial”, courtesy the artists and Goodman Gallery South Africa

Imagination breeds empathy. You can not buy or hustle to build imagination, you have to give it permission to hang out with your usual thoughts, and you have to make room for it. You may also not judge it. Hint: imagination is not about fantasy (that’s escapism and abstraction). Here are some steps to unlock your mind and invite imagination inside:

  1. Admit you don’t know what you are doing, and are frankly lost;
  2. Question all of the assumptions you cherish and all the wisdom that is conventional (even when you think you are living “unconventionally”);
  3. Embrace confusion (e.g. chaos and mystery);
  4. Remove the box to think in or outside of;
  5. Sit for long spells with uncertainty and ambiguity.

As always thank you for reading, and wishing you safety and strength this Summer. 

Yours in imagination and empathy XOX CHE

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

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