By Richard Gambino
Christmas and Hanukkah on the East End. I watch the eyes of young children as they gaze at the constellations of holiday lights here. Miracles all, every child. Every mother looks at her newborn baby and counts the fingers and toes. Every first cry made by a baby just out of the womb is a beginning of a new turn in the cycle of life, the most miraculous of all life on earth, human life. I remember looking at my newborn grandchildren and all the others in the maternity section at Southampton Hospital. So much potential in so small packages. Needing so much attention and caring. For so long.
The growing baby. Showing what’s inborn. The ready, utterly guileless smile when being hugged, being played with, being loved. The toddler, responding to music. Dancing. Playing. Mastering the body. Grasping and holding, examining. Walking and running — talk about athletic accomplishments. Learning to speak — really so quickly, putting adults to shame when we try to learn a new language. The incredible capacity to learn, and the even greater desire to learn, to learn everything, as a child must. If we maintained that desire and capacity as adults we would all have PhDs in everything.
Young children’s wonders-full imagination. Before our prosaic, dull adult views of reality, restricted and constricted by … well, by the way we’ve all learned to limit ourselves in the service of … what, exactly? Can anyone name a good reason for dulling down? All works of creativity at any level are acts of imagination. This is clearly seen in the arts, wherein artists and poets see reality in ways that our ordinary “sober,” “serious” and “realistic” minds have given up. Imagine one of Shakespeare’s characters desiring for her lover that he should have “moonbeams” fanned “from his sleeping eyes” by butterfly wings. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed last month by teenagers at Pierson High School. Imagine that. And someone actually imagined masterfully stringing holiday lights right up to the top of Montauk Lighthouse.
So too in the sciences. Einstein talked of creative day-dreaming, of “thought experiments” he did as a boy. And continued as he grew up. For example, he related being on a streetcar in Switzerland as a teenager. Looking at a grand clock on a tower as the vehicle moved away from it. Imagining the streetcar going at the speed of light. The image of the clock would never catch up to the streetcar. Its hands would stand still as seen by someone on the streetcar. Time would stand still. He said that such imagining eventually led him to revolutionize physics with his theories of relativity. Which most of us cannot … well, we can’t imagine. We can’t imagine space and time as flexible. Over great distances, straight lines curve — a self-contradiction we can’t imagine. At great speeds over great distances, time slows down.
But it takes a child’s imagination to imagine that. And two thousand years ago that child lying in the manger we see on Main Street growing up and saying “the kingdom of God is within you.” Can you imagine that. Don’t look for it up in the black sky, past some remote cold galaxy, but look within your heart.
The mental imagination is critical. The moral imagination, too. And they are vitally related. In Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1938), Henri Bergson wrote that progress in our society is had through the influences of people of great moral imagination:
The appearance of each one of them was like the creation of a new species, composed of one single individual, the vital impulse culminating at long intervals in one particular man, a result which could not have been obtained at one stroke by humanity as a whole. Each of these souls marked then a certain point attained by the evolution of life; and each of them was a manifestation, in an original form, of a love which seems to be the very essence of the creative effort.
More, Bergson wrote that the great moral individual, a person of “exceptional moral nature… creates a new feeling, like a new kind of music,” and “passes it on to mankind.” Great wisdoms such as Jesus’ “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and Martin Luther King’s judge people not “by the color of their skin” but “by the content of their character.” But they move us like music only if we have the moral imagination needed to “hear” them. And this ability rides on childhood.
So, again we return to so much potentiality in each child. As Wordsworth intuited, “The child is father of the man.” What happens in childhood is critical. To the extent a child’s imagination is not respected and nurtured, he or she can commonly be seen doing what all of us sometimes catch ourselves doing — trudging and slogging through life. Wasting our lives. Life is a formidable challenge — it isn’t a matter of hoping to “get lucky.”
The adventure of the human sprit is sometimes not an easy one. But I’m heartened by the faces of the little kids gazing at our warm holiday lights, and by a long career of teaching so many college students, most of whom are alive to the challenge, many despite the homes or schools, not to mention the worst of our pop culture, they encountered as children. The human spirit can be tough, too. Imagine that.
An ancient story: Diogenes was sitting in the sun, seeing life in his own way and living it. Emperor Alexander the Great appeared and asked, “Can I do anything for you”? Diogenes answered, “Get out of my light.” Maybe there are times when we need to say to all the dull ways of thinking and feeling that are ever-too-ready to dampen our souls, “Get out of my light.” The light may be no more than we see from Thanksgiving to New Year gracing our trees, streets and buildings. And in this season of lights, each of us adults may renew the imaginative human spirit in ourselves. Imagine that, if you will.
RICHARD GAMBINO thanks all those who turn our land into such beautiful light in December.