‘We Are Limited Only By Our Imagination and Our Will to Act’: Hopeful Words As Liberal Shibboleth

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

…[I]ncarnation remains for a political theology of the earth meaningful to the extent that it is not signifying one exceptional Son but rather a distinctive breakthrough of something happening in potential everywhere—call it theopoiesis, call it the becoming all-in-all, call it intercarnation. But take responsibility for your calling.

Catherine Keller, Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public

Far from cosmic dictator, the “word of God”communicates in…silence… to call, to provoke, to invite a fuller realization…it calls us out of our protected privacy…it calls us to a becoming public…becoming political in actions, touching earthily down, dwelling nationally and…around a perilously entangled planet. Not to a once-for-all success but to a better failure, all-in-all. No almighty fix, but some lure, glimmering darkly…. Ibid.

Somewhere I came across the phrase used in the title of this piece. Its appeal to liberal hope instantly annoyed me, leading me to look up the source. That turns out to be combat fighter pilot/astronaut Ron Garan, author of several best-selling books that I’ve not read. I’ll take issue with just the phrase, to it’s reassuring appeal to “can do” spirit while the world floods, burns, dies, and fills with plastic so that our “first world” way of life can continue uninterrupted! Though Garan’s worldly causes – peace, cooperation among nations, an end to poverty, etc. are unimpeachably worthy, this sort of morale-raising enlistment in the Good Cause is deceptive; the last thing such recruitment wants is what the world actually needs – the insurgent, transformational power of inspired imaginations.

Based, presumably, in the God’s Eye view of our limited earth home gained from his 2,842 orbits, Garan’s message of hope simply amplifies the top-down liberal order with its absolute faith in progress – especially technological progress – which if we believe in sufficiently will make limitations disappear. Although likely unintended, the unspoken subtext is, don’t bother with the (messy, dissatisfying), reality you’re in. But I must protest: Limits are not just punishment for failure of imagination! From “the bottom-up” view, from within the entanglements of embodied earth-life, the message is different: it’s by staying in the reality we are in, with its troubles and uncertainties, now intensified by the global contexts of pandemic and climate catastrophe, that the imagination that serves the “All-one” of interdependence and planetary health is engaged. Staying in our places and relationships would not be impossibly difficult – our ancestors did it! – except for its being contrary to the most fundamental lessons we’ve been taught and to which we are obedient: the work of imaginations being not to serve the “All-one” or “All-in-all” but to except us from the current troubles, to escape, surmount, achieve, strive, succeed; never to stay with limiting reality. Staying in is the stuff of failure, and that we must fear as we’d fear the hellhound on our trail.

*********

A couple who entered Karam’s, the beloved little Lebanese bakery and restaurant, came over to where Orin and I were already seated to comment on the coverage given to our Cafe’s 20th anniversary in the Utica paper: front page headline and article with two photos! Having earlier that same day given an interview to the “rival” Rome-based newspaper, I responded that it seems the anniversary’s providing a “feel good” piece for the news.

I didn’t mean the remark to be unappreciative. After all, this could make the difference in our business for some time to come, placing us back in the public view, giving us that “glow” of a destination business, a bit of local branding. In that way, all the attention is a kind of unqualified good. At the same time, it’s a peculiar feeling to reach this oasis of regard after 20 years, during at least 10 of which we’ve felt deeply ambivalent, not so much unappreciated as enslaved. Our ideals that inspire others, are seemingly too thin to carry us above the day-to-day burnout-inducing grind of continuous responsibility. To provide a beloved place, to be this kind of reliability in one’s community, surely has meaning that cannot be casually dismissed or encapsulated in a feelgood article for the newspaper. For, though not without its rewards, the pleasure one might take in them is all but erased in the very effort to maintain the beloved place day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Our condition sets us apart from our fellows at a distance that cannot, it seems, be bridged. We sacrifice alone, this not complaint but fact.

Always there are the two faces – the one facing outward to the public, toward potential and actual customers, its positivity qualified on our end, boundless on theirs. If that face is a lie, then it’s a necessary one for the sake of the business! The other face is shown exclusively between Orin, Molly and me in our shared obligation/enslavement to service – an incommensurable clash of perspectives!

In the restaurant, I turned around in my seat in order to catch up with our friends, sitting at the table behind me, while they waited for someone to take their order. It was a long wait. Finally, Mary herself, co-owner of the restaurant with her husband Sejean, a woman in her early 70’s who today was clearly very busy out on the floor, not just behind the counter as usual, appeared at their table with order pad in hand The friend commented to Mary sympathetically about her having to work so hard. In reply Mary said something about an employee with a sick child. Her voice trailed off as if she could not explain further “how it was.” Interjecting on her behalf, I said, “It’s called running a small family business” – that world in which “staffing shortages” are just one of the bullying realities.

Those words – small, local, family-run – have surefire appeal to imaginations. At the same time the perpetual burden of responsibility those words contain is nearly inconceivable to people accustomed to the job world arranged around salaries, the 40-hour week, maybe working from home! – all the corporate structures which, besides including rewards of paid vacation, health benefits, and promotions free workers from greater responsibility to the job and the workplace. The difference in perception is so great, one loses tolerance for the not understanding, for that imagination gap between people’s appreciation and their knowing what it takes to be reliably there, like the heart pumping in the body, functioning beneath notice day in, day out. The difference, like that of class – or, more positively, like initiation! – demarcates different worlds and world views.

********

In the interview with the reporter from the Rome paper, I had contrasted the corporate sameness of Dunkin Donuts with the Cafe, where the stubborn stamp of personality is expressed in every inch of it. The Cafe’s unfranchisability, its unduplicatability, is equally its vulnerability in the marketplace that’s dominated not by multitudes of the small but by a handful of the obscenely large and faceless, their dominance everywhere guaranteed. (The sign currently up on our city buses functioning as billboards reads “Utica Runs On Dunkin’!”) Personality signals one’s unfitness for the “real world!” People should be as alarmed at this as if our little shop bore a yellow star in the window, but most people miss the implications. Though a customer base among certain “hipper” groups is so far retained, gradually, as the consumer retail world that still exists in physical buildings iterates one model, most people have come to trust exactly the facelessness, predictability, convenience and affordability of the corporate chain over anything merely local.

I have only to tune into my upstate New York provincial white girl self to feel that fear of the urban, the strange, the different; from there its easy to imagine those minds for whom the local is refuge. To people who have accustomed themselves to their separate reality, their apartness and their fear, the corporate sameness of chainstores, the fleshless interactions via social media and the Internet can feel like safety. I get it, I really do. People living inside provincial bashfulness, that defended wall that as we now know all too well incubates the politics of resentment on the right, are not attracted to cosmopolitanism. Rather, they’re easily manipulated by powerful others, due to the fear that never has been challenged, to see the cosmopolitan as sign of the antichrist.

Fearful as I am of rising fascism, I understand something of the people drawn to it. A person more comfortable with strangers staying strangers will not be motivated by the oasis of multiculturalism, the restoration of a commons our Cafe, in a small way, is. But how many liberals, I wonder, who share/talk ideals of the local and face-to-face, will pick up the work of rebuilding a commons with its illiberal demand for labor, for ceaseless responsibility, for being chained to the shop, for staying in the human reality? The local” can be no more than a refuge from cosmopolitanism or, at best, a nice place to live as long as it suits me – until it’s a “local” that is also universal in consciousness, a center among an uncountable number of other centers. To be that, white liberals cannot rest on pride in our city’s highly colorful multiculturalism but must ourselves be that. The basis for the commons and for the local is a basis in the immaterial, in imagination, in being called out of our exclusive heads, and into our inclusive, imaginatively informed, embodiment.

Unlike “following the Lord,” which is a call from or to the exceptional, the call to each soul that is “panen-theistic” (sorry for the fancy word – but it works, indicating the God that is “All-in-All”) grants validity to imagination’s voice in every one. Embodiment, thus, is not a focus on the physical body but the means to restoring the sovereign “template” for the commons as true matrix for whole (not perfect!) human beings. The soul’s function being creative, poetic, means each person’s obedience to the call is personal and unique, and will at the same time, released from servility to dominant power arrangements, make her a builder of the commons.

********

Contrary to popular understanding that imaginations are for transcending earth-bound limitations, our in-common problem of the moment is precisely our discounting of the deep imaginative connective tissue that constitutes the earth-based world. Segregated from deep imagination our thinking cannot think outside the box of logic and consequently we are thrown by the power of such fabulisms as “master race,” “stolen election,” or “liberal conspiracy against gun owners” to incite mobs. The power of those divisive appeals derives not, as logic would tell us, from imagination’s opposition to facts. More crucial and more necessary even than the facts, which always degrade into yours vs. mine, is the life-honoring, all-inclusive imagination. For without embodiment, individuals may not be individual but may only function in some kind of obedience to temporal power. Their thinking will be powerless against hate because it is fed by resentment, or fear, not by love.

That is, the abandonment of life-honoring imagination, practically required of us in corporate-industrial society, leaves the door open to the virus of fascism. People discouraged, mostly without knowing it, from finding each his/her own way to poetic imagination (for the arts world too, is exception-based), will nourish ourselves on materialist dreams of accumulation and/or flag-waving nationalism instead. We’re given so many substitute enthusiasms! Many will be helpless to fend off powerful negative energies of envy, bitterness, resentment and hate (including self-hate) that so easily entrap us who live in financial precarity and are powerless under the dominant power structures of money and class. But equally, those who are comfortable in bourgeois liberal exceptionalism, inasmuch as we’ve abandoned life-honoring imagination, are also accountable; we abandon the responsibility to think, which is embodied thinking.

*********

For most people I know the best, good people with whom I have much in common, the quickening enlargement of non-moralistic, all-one-serving imagination is as unavailable to them as if it were non-existent. Minus the calling, or in vain refusal to hear/heed it, people are left with a personal battery “power” sufficient for many things, but insufficient for resolving that incommensurable clash between ideal and reality (universal and particular) that comes with restoring “the commons,” the local. Painful as it is to me to draw such distinctions, people who don’t know there’s something personally valuable to defend (i.e., their own creative soul-as-other) cannot struggle with me against our in-common oppressor – the politically constructed world that is soulless and soul-destroying. Thus, love doesn’t – cannot – depend upon those you love “getting it,” but only on the strength that comes via the calling. As I see it, without that kind of love, powered by the “All-in-All” or the “All-one,” restoration of the local – staying with “entangled” reality, with “the troubles” – is just too damned difficult, maybe doomed.

Convinced we can escape the reality we’re in, including the truth locked in our traumatized bodies, as well as the imperfections, vulnerabilities and plain unresolveables that come with staying-in-relatedness, we’re left always at least potentially pitted against the human and non-human others, and the human soul-other in our embodied selves. The message to take from that view of the planet Earth from space, then, its beauty not separate from its very limitedness, is: limitation is our truth, each and every other our school for learning.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.

[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]