In the Aftermath of Tucson II (“Moral Imaginations”)

At about the twenty minute mark of his memorial address in Tucson last month, President Obama included these impassioned words:

“But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”[1]

The previous posts in this series have discussed the ideas of humility, finger-pointing or “guilt-making,” and a need for increased empathy for others, especially through a consciousness of how our failures and resulting shame have impacted them.

But what about expanding our “moral imaginations”? Certainly it would seem that Obama does include listening, feeling empathy for others, and a communal bond within his definition of “moral imaginations.” He follows the above passage with sentences mentioning introspection and reflection, gratitude, love, kindness, generosity and compassion, responsibility and right priorities. All of these, along with recognizing our own mortality and playing a role in “bettering the lives of others,” undoubtedly fall under the purview of “moral imaginations.” Furthermore,  the speech’s numerous references to “loss” reveal that moral imagination is something that often follows a loss or sacrifice of innocence which, along with a re-evaluation of “right priorities,” was the theme of last week’s post. The status quo is upended (or as the president said, “we’re shaken from our routines”), and we’re forced through painful experience into a process of questioning, of assessment of needed changes, and then a conscious implementation of these same changes.

In a way, President Obama’s speech conveys through emotion and ideals what Mythfire has attempted to convey via psychological concepts and mythological motifs. The president accessed our minds through an appeal to the heart; Mythfire has appealed to the mind hoping to thereby open the heart. The last post’s comparison of the motif of “sacrifice of innocence” as it appears in different religious traditions or myths is one such attempt as are the repeated references to psychological images of persona and shadow. To the degree that such comparisons call into question dearly held beliefs or make one aware of one’s own troubling shadow, some readers will no doubt be disturbed and/or made uncomfortable. However, once these behaviors and beliefs are seen through as symbolizing deep psychological truths belonging to all people, then we can move closer to a felt sense of “we,” or community, instead of the more common “us versus them.”[2]

A second attempt to access the heart through the mind can perhaps be made by looking more closely at the words included in the phrase “moral imaginations.” A few years back Mythfire was struck by the full definition of imagination found in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary:

  1. the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality
  2. a: creative ability; b: ability to confront and deal with a problem: RESOURCEFULNESS; c: the thinking or active mind: INTEREST
  3. a: a creation of the mind; esp: an idealized or poetic creation; b: fanciful or empty assumption

Just as “myth” so often is used to mean misconception or falsehood, the term “imagination” is more often than not viewed as being the last definition given: “fanciful and empty.” However, imagination and myth – along with depth psychology – when fully appreciated are seen to embody all of the earlier elements of the overall definition in a manner that actually disproves the last one. The posts in this present series, in fact, have used the mental images of persona and shadow from psychology and  “chosen people” and “sacrifice of innocence” as found in various myths to reveal something which usually is not “wholly perceived in reality” as concerns the human condition. Put differently, the psychologizing mind (of a Sigmund Freud or C.G. Jung) and the mythologizing mind (of a religious people and its prophets) employ deep perception, i.e. insight or revelation, along with ability and resourcefulness, an actively interested thought process, and creative solutions to confront a current problem or problems in the pursuit of an ideal resolution.[3]

It is difficult to know if President Obama had a similar notion of imagination in mind when he used the term in the plural form in Tucson. However, there is nothing in the understanding of imagination just offered which opposes the examples of “moral imagination” given at the beginning of this post. In fact, imagination as defined by Webster’s may offer an active, outward-directed, spiritual (or spirited) complement to the more reflective soulful values expressed with such passion by the president.

Finally, this passionate feeling – felt by a people in the moment it is needed – speaks to the “moral” half of “moral imaginations.” Often misunderstood to mean a never-changing code of right and wrong, morals and morality are revealed both by history and etymology to not be firmly fixed but fluid, dependent on the collective feeling or “mood” of a given culture and/or historical period.  (The Latin term mos serves as a root for both “moral” and “mood.”) President Obama, in asking that we expand our moral imaginations, is asking that we as a collective society expand our feeling for and perceptive interest in what is needed right now, whether that concerns gun laws, the treatment of mental illness, or other similarly urgent problems. The heart and head must work in tandem if these and other twenty-first century challenges are going to be effectively and imaginatively addressed.[4]


Next Monday: Part One in a Two-Part Series on Dreams and the “Lack of Earthly Reality”

[1] For the transcript of Obama’s speech:


[2] Again, Mythfire is not saying that the psychological interpretation of religious beliefs and rituals precludes other, i.e. metaphysical or theological, interpretations. However, due in no small part to the prevalence of the same or similar symbolic motifs across time and culture, these latter interpretations can no longer ignore the discoveries of depth psychology and mythological studies — or what these discoveries reveal about the human spirit/condition.

[3] Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.  Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1991. Like “myth,” the word “fairy tale” is also invariably used to mean “fanciful and empty assumption,” something “imagined” or made up without basis in reality. The statement “That’s just a fairy tale” is equivalent to what most of us mean when we say “That’s nothing but a myth.” However, in actuality, fairy tales are every bit as psychologically revealing and resonant as myths. In fact, it is our distrust of and discomfort from such resonant revelation (which is only partly knowable and thus partially and always unknowable, a mystery beyond our control) that leads us to proudly and contemptuously treat both fairy tales and myths as second class citizens, i.e. empty of worth and meaning. Our ego compensates in “nothing but” language of bravado and certainty out of a deeper fear of what it does not know and cannot control.

[4] The word moral also connects to the Latin term mores, a fact not lost on Jung: “The word moral comes from the Latin mores – habits, customs. We connect it with the idea of good and evil, but we must always bear in mind that the word has a relative meaning. The idea of good and evil is not the same in different centuries or in different countries.” (Jung, C.G. Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939. Ed. J.L. Jarrett. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, p. 193.) It is also important to remember the role the ego’s fears and desires play in any discussion of morals and morality. That is to say, the “moralizing” ego which we all display from time to time may reflect both the ego’s desire for superior self-importance and its fear at losing the same – rather than a perceptive connectedness to the needs of the moment. Moral imagination, then, is a critical component to the humbling relativization of the ego written about in the previous “Sacrifice of Innocence” post.

This entry was posted in Culture, Depth Psychology, Fundamentalism/Literalism, Imagination, Myth, Politics, Tucson, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

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