Volume 4: How do you see the future?

Chapter 8: Lifelong Learning

Wtc Photo 06 I often use stories to communicate about the role of art in community life. I have found that stories can be a good way to link discussions about community arts practices to the people and places they impact. And, if the stories are shared with grace with an open heart and mind, people usually get a lot more from their telling than from a ponderous pile of facts and opinions.

One of these stories is about a shaman 10,000 years ago who is leading a community in its preparation for a critical hunt. I have used this imagined saga to remind folks that, for most of human history, the activities considered central to community well being (healing, blessing, mediating, mentoring, commemorating, interacting with the spirit world, etc.) have been facilitated by people who have used what we now call “art” as an important part of their practice. At times, I have referred to the shaman as the pre-art artist.

Some weeks ago I had the privilege of helping to facilitate a two day gathering of artists and arts administrators who have been participating in a multi-year leadership development program for small/midsized arts organizations in Minnesota. This retreat was convened to give the participants an opportunity to mutually explore some of the burning issues that had emerged during their time together in the program. As you can imagine, a lot of stories were shared.

During one of the many breakout sessions the conversation turned to how difficult it is for the arts community to advance the notion that artists and art making are essential for community health and vitality. At one point in the discussion, I shared the idea embodied in my shaman story, referring, once again, to the “shaman” as the pre-art artist who, relatively speaking, had only recently been moved out of a central role in community life.

When I finished, a woman in the circle indicated that she had something important to say about my description and use of the word, “shaman.” She said that many in her Ojibway community and the broader Native American community regarded the use of the term, “shaman” as both disturbing and disrespectful. She went on to say that the widespread use of a word that had been appropriated from one particular community (the Tungusic people of eastern Asia) to represent the diverse and complex global universe of sacred indigenous practices and roles, had created a picture that was both simplistic and distorted. She said she just wanted to let me know how it was.

My first response was, “Wow!”  Part of me wanted to imagine that she was talking to someone else.  I’m thinking, “Hey, I read all those books, I did my research, I’m not a callous person—and heck, its just a word” But, of course I know very, very well that there is no such thing as “just a word.”  Words beget the stories that define history and shape the beliefs and actions that often determine its winners and losers. And, here in front of me was a respected writer and community leader saying in a very forthright, but courteous way, that this particular word mattered a lot to her and many others.  I looked around the circle and mumbled something like, “I’m sorry. There was no offense intended. “  The discussion quickly moved on the other things, but I did not. I was back in school and that moment marked my first day of class. 

Over the course of the next few weeks, I read quite a bit and I talked to a number of people. One colleague, gently, but firmly reminded me that she too had brought the “shaman” issue to my attention some years ago. I had no recollection of the conversation, but knowing her, did not doubt that it had taken place. That I had had not taken it in revealed that I was dealing with more than ignorance on my part.

Some of my reading took me back to the roots of my incomplete education. Many of these books and articles referred to “shamanism” as a coherent set of beliefs and practices manifesting across many cultures over tens of thousands of years of human history. I was struck by the numerous descriptions of “shamanism” in the context of modern psychological theory in what seemed like an effort to ground “primitive mystery and magic” to a knowledge base that had been scientifically validated. While none of what I reviewed cast indigenous spirituality in an overtly negative light, I could see very clearly how I had come to view “the shaman” as a singular priest-like presence whose practice was both ubiquitous and uniquely different and apart from more modern religious observance.  

The “new” information I encountered came in many forms. I talked to a number of people, native, and non-native, to discuss the word, its use by anthropologists, historians and educators, and how it is regarded by Native Americans, and others. These conversations also explored the power of words and our responsibility to question assumptions about how they will be taken when they are used. Many of my “tutors,” also recommended texts they thought might be helpful.

One article in particular, called Shamanism, New and Old, by University of California at Davis professor Jack D. Forbes, encapsulated much of what I learned from the various sources I encountered. In his article Forbes first makes it clear that  “indigenous people refer to their own holy people and curers by other terms such as doctor, medicine person, spiritual leader, elder, herbalist or diagnostician, recognizing a wide variety of callings and skills.”  Others I spoke to added that the roles and activities often defined by anthropologists as the province of the “shaman” are often carried out by different individuals or whole communities depending on the context or circumstance. Forbes’ piece also describes how the labeling of indigenous spiritual practice as “primitive,” “pagan,” or “shamanistic” has contributed to a “misunderstanding of and denigration of non-European cultures.”  With regard to shamanism he points out that the definition of the term found in Webster’s dictionary could just as accurately be applied to mainstream Christian religious practice. He goes on to say:

“The fact of the matter is that there is no such religion as ‘Shamanism’ since all of the religions of the world make use --perhaps equally-- of the tools of the ‘shaman’ including liturgy (ritual), songs, incantations (recited prayers or formulas), and direct contact with the spiritual world (visions, ecstasy) in order to bring about changes on the physical plane.”   

Many, including Forbes, also talked about the ironic, but, but equally problematic byproduct these oversimplified and inaccurate representations, namely the more contemporary practice of romanticizing and commercializing indigenous spiritual life.  These programs, workshops, retreats, etc., organized by non-natives (and some natives), often mix Native American and eastern spiritual teachings as though they were one and the same. In the context of a history of serial betrayal, stolen homelands, and genocide these multi-cultural spiritual appropriations are regarded by many Native Americans as particularly insensitive.

I am aware that there is a wide range of opinion among indigenous peoples regarding these complex issues. My task these past few weeks has been to sort through what I have found, and come to my own sense of what is right. I was prompted to look at these issues because something I said was disturbing, and yes, hurtful to a colleague I respect.  I am thankful that she had the courage to speak her mind.  That I did this out of ignorance is no excuse. I feel strongly that ignorance perpetuated by “well meaning” people is often far more dangerous than venal misrepresentation. What I have learned during this time of questioning has made a strong impression.  It has deepened my understanding of the power of words and stories to both hurt and to heal.  It has also strengthened my commitment to question my own assumptions about people, and places, and experiences, that, for whatever reason, lie beyond my ken and, most of all, to continue to acknowledge and learn from my mistakes.



Chapter 7: Artists Will Create the Future

Those that can not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” This seemingly “conventional” wisdom seems like the right place to start an exploration of the future.  Here in the United States, we have lost our connection with the past.  Our actions today seemingly have no connection to past actions or future consequences.  We have become so detached from both our history and our future that we, make decisions in a vacuum without any consideration of those who have come before or those who will come after.   

It is ironic.  The United States of America, this country founded on the notion of freedom from religious persecution and the tenants that “All men are created equally” and are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” should find itself embroiled in political debates and policies regarding how to enforce immigration laws or banning gay marriage that are so antithetical to these foundational beliefs.   

We know that our system of regulation is far better at protecting rights – such as free speech, right to assemble, right to a fair trial, and even the right to bear arms – and not as effective at restricting one’s rights (e.g. Jim Crow laws, Chinese Exclusion Act, Prohibition, etc.).  And yet, we continue to pass laws seeking to restrict an individual’s pursuit of happiness or equality.  Even worse, we make these actions based on the whim of the majority (or at least those with the loudest voices, the most resources and greatest access to power) rather than grounding our decisions in an understanding of the mistakes of the past and carefully evaluating how actions taken today will be judged by future generations.   

Change is the only thing we know for certain about the future – the world is constantly and will continue to change.  We must learn from our past to create a better future.  We have more pressing needs and issues.  

Perhaps no better example of this is the BP oil spill in the Gulf.  We have a problem.  We have a demand for energy that is not sustainable.  We are utilizing technology that is outpacing our ability to safely and responsibly use it.  This is not unlike ancient inhabitants of Easter Island stripping the land and dooming their future.  Are we, in the modern age doomed to go down that same path?  Is that what our future holds for us?   

Perhaps.  Yet we have free will and can determine our own future.  While failure to remember the past dooms us to repeating it, if we are able to remember and learn from the past we can most certainly create a better future.  Albert Einstein is credited with saying “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  We must change the way we have been acting, the choices we have been making, to create this new future.   

To paraphrase Thomas Edison, after he finally found a way to make the light bulb work after thousands of attempts, it is important for us to not think of our past mistakes not as failures but as opportunities to learn about what does not work.  We have lots of examples of what doesn’t work – demand for energy outpacing the supply, racist laws and unjust legislation.  We need to focus on doing things differently, better, and right.    

To do this we need artists – those who can see that which doesn’t not yet exist and specialize in the generative process of creation.  As Milenko so aptly stated in a previous post, “imagination is powerful” and if we can imagine it, we can realize it.   

So, when asked what I see in the future, I don’t know the specifics.  I don’t know if there will be flying cars or colonies on Mars, another ice age or melting of the polar ice caps.  I do envision, for the sake of the children, the grandchildren, their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s grandchildren a future in which we value all people and their contributions; see a diversity of opinions as an asset, not something to be squelched; teach children critical thinking – not just rote memorization; “live within our means” in terms of resource consumption; realize we are part of a much broader natural system; and realize we have a responsibility and an obligation to be good stewards of the planet for future generations.   

I know that for as long humans exist, there will be art.  Art spans time.  A vase or basket, painting or scroll, music or song, dance or ritual that was beautiful, meaningful and important thousands of years ago still is so today.  I also know that it will be the artists – the keepers of these traditions, knowledge and ways of being – that can, must, and will create our future. 

Chapter 6: One story at a time

William_Cleveland_Photo Small
The other day I blurted out a spontaneous Rorschach of an idea about America and its place in the world.  It goes like this: We (meaning the USA, and its partners in the uber-consuming west) are an intrinsic part of an amorphous self-perpetuating amalgam called the “cumulative monster.” But, because all of us are so caught up in the the evolved DNA of this beast it is very hard for us see ourselves as co-conspirators in the monster's smothering murder of the world. In essence, our collective shadow is so big we can't see it ---- we can't own it. Predictably
, as the stench of the beast has spread, more and more of us are looking for a "noxious other" to pin it on.  The fly in the ointment, of course, is that Its becoming increasingly clear, that this "us" vs "them" default is not only not working, it is part of the problem. In very short order we have traveled from the twentieth century --- where personified demons like Hitler, Stalin, the KKK, etc. were so easy to perceive as a separate species--- to the Twenty First Century ---where our collective, interconnected, interdependent responsibility for everything from the environment, to human rights to peace is as unavoidable as breathing.  This is a massively difficult perceptual leap that calls into question the prevailing worldview that has defined "progress" and driven human events for the last 5000 years.  

I think a lot of the conflict rising up around the world is a visceral reaction to one of the most obvious symptoms of this worldview upheaval---the breathtakingly rapid disintegration of what President Obama called in his inaugural address “the lines of tribes.”  This is a scary thing for a lot of people. On one hand we are regularly being confronted by the collective karma of global inter-connection. On the other, the thing that defines us “my place”, “my family”, “my community’” ---each tribe's unique sense of itself as compared other tribes---is perceived by many as under direct attack by this same tsunami of interconnectedness. It is not surprising that that many in the world, ---from Afghan hills to the Tea Party convention to the BP boardroom ---feel they are in a fight for their very survival.

In his book, The Great Turning: from Empire to Earth Community, my friend David Korten makes an impassioned plea for a new values narrative, a new set of stories, to counteract the crises of environmental destruction, rampant materialism, growing inequality, and degradation of democratic institutions. I have mentioned this book in this blog before this but I think it’s message bears repeating. Korten calls on people to work together in local communities and in networks of congruence globally to bring a new structure to society based on several principles:

The cultural principles of Earth Community affirm the spiritual unity and interconnectedness of Creation. They favor respect for all beings, nonviolence, service to community, and the stewardship of common resources for the benefit of generations to come. The economic principles of Earth Community affirm the basic right of every person to a means of livelihood and the responsibility of each person to live in a balanced relationship with their place on Earth without expropriating the resources of others. The political principles of Earth Community affirm the inherent worth and potential of all individuals and their right to a voice in the decisions that shape their lives, thereby favoring inclusive citizen engagement, cooperative problem solving, and restorative justice.


To realize a society based on these principles, Korten argues that we need to recognize that our relationships to each other and to nature are matters of choice, not inevitability. But it often seems that these choices are not possible. Why? Our sense of powerlessness stems from the fact that we have been taught to believe a series of stories about how prosperity, security, and meaning are created. These stories, the imperial stories, favor concentration of power and wealth over more equitable forms of living. New stories are needed to provide the foundation for new beliefs about prosperity, security and meaning—stories based on the principles of Earth Community. For example, the belief that prosperity results from an ever-enlarging pie, part of which will trickle down, needs to be replaced by the recognition that “true prosperity depends on life-serving economies that satisfy our basic material needs, maintain a sustainable balance with Earth’s natural systems, strengthen the bonds of caring communities, and support all persons in the full realization of their humanity.

How these new stories are created, shared and turned into action is a big part of what Pat Shifferd and I address in a new book coming out in a couple of months.  The book is called Between Grace and Fear: The Role of the Arts in a Time of Change.  I know this is my perpetual soapbox topic, but I can’t help thinking that our sense of hopelessness in the face of what appears to be insurmountable problems precipitated by enormous forces beyond our control is in fact one of the most powerful of the Empire stories.  The antidote to this way of thinking is of course is as simple as it is audacious --- each day, each moment that we encounter our fellow workers, our neighbors, our family members, and most of all our kids, is an opportunity to insinuate a small part of a different story into the narrative of the world.  The altered worldview we need to change course will be created in much the same manner as the current version was--- from person to person, from heart to heart, one dance, one song, one painting, one story at a time. 










Chapter 5: How do you see the future?

Maryo 11-05 b I’ve avoided posting on this question, to be honest. How do I see the future: the future that could be, or my image of how I suspect the future will be?  Here I am, the constant optimist, having to ask whether, in fact, I just live in fantasyland.  I do not like to ask this.

In 1917, dramatist Alfred Arvold of the North Dakota Agricultural College imagined that the community center of the future would be a place where art, science, government, and recreation would all take place. In the Alumnae magazine he wrote:

A community center is a place, a neighborhood laboratory, so to speak, where people meet in their own way to analyze whatever interests they have in common and participate in such forms of recreation as are healthful and enjoyable.  The fundamental principle back of the community center is the democratization of all art so the … people can appreciate it, science so that they can use it, government so that they can take a part in it, and recreation so they can enjoy it.  In other words, its highest aim is to make the common interests the great interests.  To give a human expression in every locality to the significant meaning of these terms – “come let’s reason and play together” – is in reality the ultimate object of the community center.

At NDSU, Arvold refused a proffered start-of-the-art theater plant, saying that instead he wanted the farm boys and girls to learn how to create theater in barns, town halls, yards, and living rooms.  His drama students planted lilacs each year; Arvold  envisioned 80 miles of lilacs lining the road between Fargo and Grand Forks and he invented Lilac Days, complete with its own song, which he commissioned from a local composer - sheet music was distributed broadly throughout Fargo. He designed the “Lincoln Log Cabin” on the floor above the campus theater – replicating the interior of the dwelling where Abraham Lincoln was born; audiences were invited for a meal after the show, to converse about “whatever interests they [had] in common” and to chat about the show with the artists, whether Kirsten Flagstad, the Trapp Family, or local performers. 

The point was: Arvold was trying to show that beauty, the arts, conversation, a shared meal, democracy, inquiry and fun were all aspects of a good community, and he believed that to overly differentiate science, art, plants, recreation, discussion did more harm than good for the community. After almost 40 years as head of the theater department, his name is well-known in towns, homes and farms statewide, Arvold was let go in the early 1950’s, for he was not creating a “quality” theater program.

This story is not isolated. Art of people could clearly not be “real” art, right? Frederick Koch, a dramatist, whose frenzy to enable ordinary people to write plays about their lives and communities inspired hundreds of new plays and extraordinary devotion to the University of North Carolina by thousands of people statewide, was not replaced when he died; his successor was charged with creating a “quality” theater department whose measure of success would be the number of students placed in the New York theater.  Ditto with Alex Drummond of Cornell who saw no contradiction between training his students for the New York stage and offering his students as dramaturges for anyone in an upstate New York farm family who wanted to write and produce a play that offered meaning and insight into life in their community – Drummond  had little or no stature by the time he retired in the 1950’s and his work is unknown. 

Did you see Tim Robbins’ “Cradle Will Rock”?  Remember the scene in 1939 in which Rockefeller was longing to return form, nobility and beauty to Art as he wanted Art to be (as opposed to Diego Rivera’s idea of art)? At that same time, the Federal Theater – which, in part, asked people to think about the issues of the day - was considered seditious by many in Congress. Later, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings in the early 1950’s resulted in the blackballing of many exceptional artists – challenging, questioning, was not seen as the outworking of democracy, but rather, of sedition.  I myself saw people – including federal officials - walking out on Arlene Goldbard as recently as 20 years ago, during a talk in which she argued for the integrity of all cultures. Sedition again. 

Perhaps more seductively dangerous are those many instances when we seemingly find accord in a slogan – “the arts are for everyone!” but a little parsing reveals that some people are referring to allowing Everyman to be a spectator for the arts, where others are referring to Everyman actually making art and, uh oh, what will the consequences be to the arts if that happens?

So how do I see the future?  I envision a future in which our species recognizes that we are all “in it together,” that none of us can truly thrive unless all of us do, and that the blessing of creativity – which, yes, I believe to be innate – is the key.  Moving to synthesize all of the learning that we’ve accumulated in the last century in the interest of whole people and healthy communities.  Toward this end, I think about Arvold’s idea of the community center, Drummond’s students working with farmers, the Federal Theater…

Now, I see things happening that I applaud.  Arlene Goldbard is now a sought-after public speaker.  Places like the Maryland Institute of Arts are instituting community arts programs.  State arts agencies are giving grants for creative experimentation in community development – not only funding arts institutions and projects.  A body of research on the critical role that arts education plays in human development is emerging. I can point to many projects involving arts and gardens, arts and the local food movement, arts and veterans issues, arts and environmental action – and of course we have decades of arts and the demand for social justice.  I see the tools of the internet allowing more people to participate in the process of making and disseminating art.  I see more people – especially young people – inventing creative ways of living and working.  I cling to these things as “first steps” in the society that could be.

But.  There’s a difference between powerful programs and social change. Programs like Arvold’s or Koch’s or Drummond’s, or the Federal Theater surely make a difference in individual people’s lives.  But did they affect communities?  Did they affect social change?  Our cultural values run deep.  If programs, even movements, are to be part of real change, I think we have to ask:

·      Can we become engaged in our physical communities, as well as our e-communities, If we can’t figure out how to live decently with the person next door, if we can’t figure out how to discuss local land use issues? How on earth can we think about living in a changing America?  --- about living in a global world?   Can we take control of our physical communities?  To give our places away to a few people with a big stake in local outcomes, or to far-away corporate or state/federal government entities, is dangerous.

·      Can we transcend the cult of stardom?  (We even allow stars to sing our national anthem  - which ought to be the ultimate “people’s song” - for us at sports events!)

·      Can we reclaim critical thinking as a foundation of democracy? And demand education programs that inspire questioning and creative thinking in the name of democracy, not just the workforce of the future? 

·      Can we, indeed, start thinking about the implications and responsibilities of living in a democracy?

·      Can we start shifting the American Dream from a story about a quest for goods, money and power, to a story about achieving a meaningful life?  As resources dwindle and the population grows, it’s essential that this happen, or else competition will become even fiercer, and society even meaner.

·      Can we quit being so darn pure about the arts?  Our motives over the past 50 years have been admirable – we have said that the arts are “for” everyone. But there are elements of old-style charity in this attitude (ooops! I just made a typo, and typed “old-stale charity” – perhaps my fingers are smarter than my brain here!) Ah, but are we willing to let Everyman in on the process of making art? Setting standards? Defining new forms? Are we willing to recognize that creativity is a blessing, and not a commodity?  Are we willing to allow the arts to evolve?  Are we willing to recognize that, if the arts truly become a “commons”  rather than “private property,” we might have to re-examine our ideas about our society, our democracy, our selves?

I could go on, but you get the drift.  We have the brains and the resources to do this; but do we have the will?  

I envision the future as I want it to be.  Oh, how I want it to be!  But is it how I see it?  I don’t know.

Still, as TS Eliot said, “For us there is only the trying….”


Chapter 3: Seeing the Way Forward


William_Cleveland_Photo Small Milenko’s question has led me to ponder the things we don’t see, or refuse to see, that are, often, staring us in the face. I would speculate that we are all afflicted by one version or another of this kind of “selective blindness.” These blank spaces on the community landscape can manifest as our next-door neighbors or the people we pass by everyday on the street. They might also be communities we avoid or don’t even know about. Sometimes, they show up as slow motion changes that sneak up on us, transforming long held assumptions into a private shriek: “what in the world has gotten into ‘this place’ or ‘those people’?”


For me, one of the most obvious of these hidden-in-plain- sight conditions is what has happened, (and continues to happen), to America’s relationship to creativity and learning. Despite the election of a President who has said that arts education is critical to the future of our democracy, the creative learning agenda we hoped for (even anticipated) has not emerged.  


Like health care, and energy, the re-invention of education is a make-or-break issue for this country. Obama’s “Race to the Top,” initiative clearly signals that it is a top priority for his administration. Unfortunately, thus far, I view this effort as missing an opportunity to change the intrinsically flawed nature of educational practice in America.


It may seem audacious to say that an education that does not include arts-centered learning is below standard, but I truly believe this is the case. I would further argue that sometime in the next twenty years, the educational establishment will catch up with the brain scientists and neuropsychologists who bear me out (and many others) on this point. Though this contention will probably require decades of research to “prove,” arts educators and teaching artists in this country have known and “seen” the obvious link between creativity and learning for as long as we have embraced the notion of public education.


The diminishing numbers of arts educators who remain in the classroom, are reminded everyday, that arts-centered learning is where discovering, then knowing, and finally “seeing” in the cognitive sense, often comes together for a child. This kind of vision is not an esoteric attribute. It is what humans use to apply basic skills, like literacy and numeracy, to the task of solving complex problems. And, to reiterate the point made by our President, beyond each student’s individual development, creative learning is also the incubator for community cultural and social development.

Put simply, arts education exercises and strengthens the imagination and creativity we have always called upon to survive and thrive, individually and collectively. But these capacities do not just spring forth, fully formed. Just like language acquisition and critical and abstract thinking, creative learning requires practice, exercise, and real life application---particularly today, as we navigate our multivalent, cross-sector, change constant environment. (For more on the essential role of arts education in a changing world see: Arts Centered Learning: NEA Leadership & America’s Creative Future in Morning News (above, right, on this page.)


On the flip side

I would also observe that our protective blinders are indiscriminate, and can separate us from more than unpleasant truth. These filters can also prevent us from recognizing that the resources and capacities we need to “see” and manifest a different future are all around us. At the Center for the Study of Art and Community, we view our work in arts-based community development as having a lineage that stretches back to the pre-historic role of the shaman. One of the Shaman’s jobs was to mediate the relationship between the community and the spirit world. A good part of this work involved the invocation of the benevolent spirits as protection against the destructive forces loose in the world. I would venture, that If there was ever a time when these shamanic services were needed, it is now. In fact, it was the invisibility of contemporary artist/shaman that led me to document and share the good news contained in Art and Upheaval: Artists on the Worlds Frontlines. 


Even though these stories deal with the likes of Milosevic, the Khmer Rouge, and apartheid, they also say something universal about the creative process as a uniquely powerful mediating force in less damaged places. They say that if you scratch the surface of a community in need you will find artists responding, making art, to live, to speak, to kindle the human spirit,

to bring peace, or to resolve conflict,

to manifest beauty in the face of horror,

or--- to reveal the ugly truth in the face of denial,

to rally, or bring order,

or to educate and inspire,

to entertain, to heal, 

and most of all to tell the story,

directly, obtusely, in code, as a joke, 

as a song in a pub,

as a play unfolding in cramped a living room

a dance in the streets. 

or a painting on the wall

drenched in the shadows

of a flickering fire

Most importantly, they say that in the face of the destruction we are impelled to create--- that upheaval begets both crises and opportunity and Shiva dances to create as well as destroy. Our  creative capacity is a survival impulse that that seems to arise almost unconsciously. In the face of the unfathomable, the senseless, we roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of making sense, making meaning, and seeing the way forward.



Chapter 2: Responding to “How do you see the future?”

Pua I greatly appreciate Milenko Matanovic’s use of the word “see” rather than “imagine” as applied to the future in the question he poses to each of us, “How do you see the future?” (emphasis added) The distinction between “seeing” and “imagining” the future, I believe, is critical.  As a way of understanding the distinction I looked for the definition of “imagination” and “see” in dictionaries for the two languages I think in:  English and ‘Olelo Hawai’i (the Hawaiian Language). 

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, defines “imagination” as, “1:  The act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” (emphasis added)  “See” was defined as, “1 a:  to perceive by the eye  b:  to perceive or detect as if by sight  2 a:  to have experience of:  undergo  b:  to come to know:  Discover.”

As described in the Hawaiian Dictionary (1971) by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert, the phrase for “imagination,” is:  “no’ono’o ulu wale,” literally, “thought growing by itself.”  I interpret this to mean a thought unrooted in reality.  The word for “see” is “`ike,” and in English its meaning is, “To see, know, feel, greet, recognize, understand; to know sexually (For:4:275); to receive revelations from the gods; knowledge, understanding, recognition, comprehension and hence learning; sense, as of hearing or sight ; vision.”

The difference between imagining the future and seeing the future is huge, especially to my Hawaiian mind.  As a way of concretely showing you how I see the difference, I would like to tell you a story about how the Po’e Hawai`i (the Hawaiian People) re-learned/remembered how to navigate over long distances without using modern navigational instruments, from our cousins from the Satawal Islands in Micronesia.  I will tell you the short version.

In 1976, Mau Pialug, a Master Navigator in the Traditional Way of navigating using the sea, wind, birds, rain, all the natural elements and revelations from the gods and from the na’au, the gut.  For Hawaiians, the na’au is the place where we think; it’s where the brain, the heart, come together below the piko (belly button) with experience and intuition and form our mana’o, our thoughts.  Although Hawaiians had navigated across thousands of miles of ocean for many centuries in the Traditional Way, we had forgotten in these modern times.  But the resolve to relearn was strong and thankfully Mau Pialug was a willing teacher.  As we learned, he taught, so that the art and science of this way of navigating, of seeing, could live, but not just for the Hawaiian People, but for his people as well.  We became the holders of this knowledge for future generations of Hawaiians, Micronesians, and other Native Peoples around the world. 

Mau’s first student was a young Hawaiian man, Nainoa Thompson, for whom the sea was a nest of comfort and learning.  See http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/tops/nainoa.html

One of the first exercises Mau taught him as a navigator involved seeing the island Nainoa was headed to, especially if he had never been there before.  Mau would stand with Nainoa at an ocean lookout and tell him, “Look.  See the island you are going to, especially if you’ve never been there before.  If you cannot see the island, you can never get there.”  Day after day, hour after hour, Nainoa would look beyond the horizon and see Tahiti clearly, ‘ike pono, until he knew where it was, its smell, taste, its nature.  Significantly, Mau never said, “Imagine the island where you are going to.”  Mau always said, “See the island.”  If you apply this lesson to the future, to see the future is to see something rooted in reality – the future as something you can see, taste, feel, describe, touch.  If you can see the future, you can get there. This is different from imaging the future, which is the “act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” (emphasis added)

In the process of seeing the future, I am looking all around me for those principles, practices and characteristics of people, economic and social development I want the future to embrace.  I’m taking notes about ordinary kindnesses that I want to be practiced in my future world and am starting to make it real by practicing it now.  For example, there is a young woman who attends many community development meetings and when she walks into the room, she immediately looks around for the kupuna (the elders, of every ethnicity) and goes to kokua (to help them by getting water or food or a comfortable chair up front where they can hear the discussion).  I am following her example. 

Another example, often at meetings, some one, will come to the meeting later than others and there is an older man who will go to that person and “make room” for him or her by telling her what has happened so far in the meeting. 

In the community I am part of, Wai`anae, on the western side of the Island of O’ahu, there are many groups of people re-establishing the growing and sharing of healthy food, children and families:  Ka’ala Cultural Learning Center, Hoa’Aina O Makaha, MA`O Farm . . . The future is all around us, I can see it.  What are you seeing?

I am very grateful to Milenko for asking the question and giving me the opportunity to reflect on this important question. 

 Aloha (Love and Respect)

 Puanani burgess


Chapter 1: How do you see the future?

Milenkocropped Imagination is powerful. It guides our thoughts which in turn guide our actions. Imagination is the soil in which our ideas grow. Imagination is what allows our actions to change.

Images of the future crafted by people of the past are now our reality, just as current images of the future will shape tomorrow’s reality.  If we believe that to be true, we have an obligation to articulate and examine our images of the future.

Dutch futurist Fred Polak studied the importance of the image of the future.  His conclusion: 

The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures.  As long as the society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom.  Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.

My interpretation of Polak’s words: Truly creative thinking about the future requires tension–the tension of holding both the real and the possible in our awareness at the same time. 

I believe our images of the future must be more than incremental improvements on the present; they must be daring and far-reaching. Polak called such a view the “other” future -- heretical in its newness, with the ability to broaden our thinking so that our lives are not limited by what is apparent and evident. If we can be so daring, we can willingly and eagerly participate in cultural change-making, rather than kick and scream when faced with the unfamiliar.

With disciplined imagination, an informed vision of what we, the people, want to be and do, change can be a joyful process. The American cultural philosopher William Irwin Thompson said that, like fly-fishers, “we cast images in front of ourselves and then slowly reel ourselves into them, turning them into reality.” To accomplish this, we need to examine and inform our imaginations, and share what we imagine with others. 

Our time is ripe for a thorough re-imagination of what the world will be when it grows up.  This is demanding and audacious work.  It takes courage to unpack one’s inner constructs and peer into assumptions and impulses that make us who we are. Seeing without distortion takes courage.  Every day, media and pop culture pound us with messages of who we should be and what we should do.  If we don’t contest these messages, we accept them – and consign ourselves to a lifeless repetition of the familiar.

What is my image of the future?  Here is how I described it in my recent book Multiple Victories:  

Future cities will be compacted into clearly defined neighborhoods that will be smaller and more densely populated than our sprawling suburbs and ex-urbs today.  These new cities and towns will combine the best of traditional urban design with modern mass transit and communication technologies . . . Offices, stores and restaurants, housing, parks and open spaces will all be within walking distance for the people who live there. Tentacles of restored land with healthy watersheds, river banks, ravines and hills will reach into the heart of the city, while clear boundaries will honor spaces in which farms and wild lands flourish and nurture the new metropolis.

As our resurgent cityscapes mature, architecture, cuisine and the arts will re-develop regional styles and celebrate local choices, resources and sensibilities.  

In this future, the differences between our cities become apparent and delightful. The joy of walking and the convenience of alternative transportation will diminish the need for the single-passenger automobile, reduce its infrastructure and restore a human scale to the cityscape.   

An increasingly ”walkable” environment will allow us to cluster our important civic institutions, such as, the city hall, library, and museums, shopping and work. As a result, more and more people will find themselves drawn to the middle of our new town where they will also find a beautiful, intentional space where they feel welcome to put up their feet, play games or discuss the matters of the day. This space, the community’s gathering place, is the heart for communal identity, welcome, and social rejuvenation.  Every neighborhood will build such a space where people create together something that captures their collective talents, their aspirations and their appreciation of the many community connections.

This image flows from my own imagination, shaped by an increasingly urgent imperative: Stop waste! We must stop wasting our time, creativity, learning opportunities. We must stop wasting our health, community, local democracy, our useful differences, character and identity. We must stop wasting the innocence of the young and wisdom of the elders. We must end planned obsolescence and stop wasting our natural gifts of air, water, soil and the creatures that live around us. If we can muster the strength to do this, we can bring about a speedy transformation of our urban, social and natural landscapes. With courage and commitment, we can develop solutions that address these issues coherently and solve multiple problems at once. If we can come together to create such solutions, we can reverse the current trend of multiplying problems and bring about, ultimately, a world that will not need constant remediation.

I have my own library of mental images that inform my imagination and shape this vision. What do you see? What sorts of patterns or themes? What images of the future spring from your own imagination? 

Milenko Matanovic

January 14, 2010

Issaquah, WA