Imaginative Association

In recently reading an excellent passage from Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, I was reminded that the foundational wisdom that makes up current forms of personal growth and development used to be conveyed in more subtly imaginative ways. Where there are now multi-step programs, bullet-point lists with brassy keywords and eye-catching charts and diagrams to explain and prove the validity of ideas and techniques — and, of course, how one will quickly benefit from them — there was once more humanity, poetry and nuance of expression, which encouraged the observer to pause and consider, look and lean into underlying meanings.

It seems to me that more has been lost than gained by this kind of modern stringent simplification. One deeper potential now underdeveloped or ignored completely is that of imaginative association — the ability to spontaneously envision and emotionally understand a direct relationship between someone else or something else and one’s own experience. These are very human skills that are the foundation of learning through empathetic connection. And it is from this connection that we can allow ourselves to be stretched and opened and guided by the many forms of natural beauty, art and beings we come into contact with each day.

Imaginative association requires intuitional sensibility and creative insight, which, for the most part, arise from our ability to think and feel for ourselves from the inside out (not to be mistaken for just happening to have an opinion or list of facts). Such skills can be suggested, encouraged and given examples of, but for the most part cannot be directly taught. In their absence, we then end up trying to impose rules or memorized techniques instead of exploring the many forms of persuasion and guidance, both internal and external, we always have access to but often don’t take the attentive care to notice.

But back to that passage from Thoreau that caught my imagination…

“The movement of the eyes express the perpetual and unconscious courtesy of the parties. It is said, that a rogue does not look you in the face, neither does an honest man look at you as if he had his reputation to establish. I have seen some who did not know when to turn aside their eyes in meeting yours. A truly confident and magnanimous spirit is wiser than to contend for mastery in such encounters. Serpents alone conquer by the steadiness of their gaze. My friend looks me in the face and sees me, that is all.”

In this single elegant, unobtrusive paragraph, he manages to denounce shallowness, arrogant rudeness, false confidence, petty ambition and manipulation, as well as to shine light upon a number of virtues and subtle dynamics, including the nature and value of sincere intent, authentic strength, generosity and clean simplicity, and celebrate true friendship as presence in empathetic recognition; all without even suggesting the reader do anything. Like all good poets, musicians, artists, educators, parents and perhaps Nature herself, Thoreau is appealing to the observer’s imaginative association. Not so as to tell us what we should do, but to delineate how things are and to signify how one might be with them.

Perhaps the world we live in now demands a pace, with sharply defined targets, schemes and deadlines, that doesn’t readily allow for much pausing and considering, looking and leaning into subtleties and meaning. Still, as I say, I was reminded of something significant, or as Thoreau himself expresses more beneficently…

“It reminded us how much fairer and nobler all the actions of man might be, and that our life in its whole economy might be as beautiful as the fairest works of art or nature.”

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