I always liked the piano accompaniment of the John Lennon song, and something about its simplicity. Never liked the lyrics, though. They seemed to me banal to the point of idiocy – and I apologise to all of you who still enjoy the tune, and for whom the next few sentences may be upsetting.
But I can’t ‘imagine there’s no countries’. That’s way off the scale of my imagination. Call me bourgeois and parochial. ‘Imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can’. Sorry John, I can’t do that either, hard as I try. It seems to me that countries (and those excluded from them) and possessions (those without them) are the reality which we must confront, and any other approach is a fantasy, vapid and ultimately meaningless. None of this is going away soon.
I genuinely don’t have a problem with countries, John. I have a problem with countries that treat their inhabitants differently and with prejudice. I don’t have a problem with possessions, either. I just would like that those who are in profound need had more of them to call their own.
Enough sporting with John Lennon. The reason the song works is because we all know that imagination matters. It’s the fuel that charges up empathy: and that’s something worth fuelling. As volunteers at JRS, we do our level best to put ourselves in the position of those less fortunate. Flex that imagination muscle, and see where it takes you.
For sure, it’s not a thing that’s exclusive to those of us trying to make the lives of refugees in the UK less ghastly. None of us can operate as humans without imagination – if I can’t put myself in your shoes, how will I know how to calibrate my response to your off-hand remark which upset me, or work out whether we might have ‘something in common’?
We all know how to put ourselves in the shoes of others, because we do it all the time: it’s a simple condition of communication. “If I do this, will he think I am a bad person?”; “What will she do if I tell her I love her?”
It just gets a bit harder if the person you wish to support is from rural Afghanistan, or some distant province of war-ravaged in Congo. Yes, as humans we have many needs in common, but unless you’ve been to such locations in such situations there, you cannot possibly imagine that level of violence, those depredations. Can you imagine that? Sorry, but I truly doubt it.
So I’d like to propose another way of approaching imagination, and our utterly wonderful desire to serve. By all means, do your best to imagine what your friend has been through, such that you might cushion their fears and wants in this strange country. Do all that, from the depth of your heart.
But when it comes to ‘Imagine’ – forget about countries, possessions, economics, other fantastical parallel universes which may or may not come to pass. Leave all that at the spiritual threshold. Do something else instead. A bit more hands-on.
Imagine yourself. Your actual self, this moment. However and whomever you conceive yourself to be.
Imagine yourself a better person (in whatever way you interpret that thought). Don’t put yourself in the shoes of others. Leave it.
Put yourself in your own shoes, just a bit further down the road, and walk stronger, and in service.
You could do that now. Or tomorrow, if there’s a reason you can’t do it today. But you could almost certainly take a half step, maybe two, right now. Imagine.
Chris accompanies JRS’s refugee friends over the phone in his role as an emotional support and befriending volunteer at the Jesuit Refugee Service UK.
This written piece is part of the ‘JRS Imagines’ anthology, for Refugee Week. You can read more from the collection here.
Find out more about what’s happening at JRS UK during Refugee Week