How do we know anything? We imagine it. When we read a novel we imagine the landscape which is described to us. A part of the power of Jane Harper's novels for Australians is that she describes a landscape which we know. We have experience of this land, so her words and our imaginations combine to bring her books alive. The snow and ice on the moors in a British novel lack this power; I have never been in such a place. But Gary Disher's Tiverton sits in the landscape of my childhood. My imagination builds his world from the bricks of my childhood.
We build the world around us in our imagination, but never from "a blank slate." We always use the experience of the past, the example of our friends—with all their prejudices, and our own, to interpret what we see, to imagine a world, and to decide upon actions.
How is it that a person can set off on the Strzelecki Track in a small car in summer, with no extra water, with only one of those faux spare tyres, and with no sat. phone? It's because they cannot imagine how badly things can go wrong, let alone how fast. They cannot imagine 50 degrees in the sun with no shade, and that it will only get down to 39 overnight, at the coolest. They cannot imagine drinking 8 or 10 litres of water in a day because Adelaide is never like that. Their death when the little car falls apart is not so much foolishness as simply a lack of imagination. They cannot—could not—imagine that what it says on the maps, and what the warning signs along the road say, might literally be true. In fact, I suspect they see something else in the words from what I see in those signs. Because I have been sick with dehydration. I have staked one tyre, and then the spare, and then the second spare, and sat patching both tube and sidewall in order to get home. I can imagine only too well what can go wrong.
Back home in Adelaide, this understanding of imagination has profound implications for how we live, and for the future of our society. If we have lived in Kensington all our life in a two-income family, we cannot, even with the best will in the world, imagine what it means to live on the pension, let alone unemployment payments. We simply have no way, no experience, with which to imagine what that level of income means in real life.
If we are robust and healthy, with good health insurance because we are rich, we have no idea what it means to sit six or eight hours in casualty; we check into St. Andrew's. Why don't they have health insurance, we ask, unable to imagine that health insurance (I use my own example) might take half your pension.
Can you imagine, from these few examples, that what seems just, fair, and reasonable, for those of us in the comfortable suburbs might be a faulty imagining. That it might imagine situations which only "work" for those on $100,000 a year and, in fact, might be wrong?
There is only one way to imagine as Jesus did. That is to do what he did. Sit with the poor. Compassion—what the bible calls mercy—means to feel with. I can only feel with you if I sit with you subject to what you are subject to, vulnerable like you, and with you. This is a terrifying thing, yet what he says is this:
37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
This is from Matthew 25, which also says that if I will not do these things, then I reject not only the poor, but also reject Jesus. I want to say that I cannot imagine what this might do to me. I want to say that Matthew's imagining that "he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt 25:41) has not yet understood the boundless mercy of God which Jesus teaches us... yet, although I think he is wrong at this point, I cannot help wondering, I cannot imagine, what glory it is to which I am blind because I lack mercy.
Andrew Prior (Jan 2023)