This is a powerful practice that was shared with me by John Paul Lederach. John Paul is a sociologist and specialist in conflict transformation. He has served as a peacebuilder in Nepal, Somalia, Northern Ireland, Colombia, and Nicaragua around issues related to direct violence and systemic oppression. He has dedicated his life to exploring and implementing alternatives to dehumanization and violence through processes that rekindle empathy, respect, understanding, and mutual identification. He calls this practice rehumanization.
John Paul explains that rehumanization entails fostering our moral imagination in order to see the other as a person first, then to see ourselves in others, and finally to recognize our common humanity. It also means expanding our own sense of self so we can be sensitive to the suffering of others and hopefully come to respect the basic human dignity of all.
John Paul identifies four kinds of imagination that support rehumanization. The first is “the grandchild imagination.” By this he means that we can project ourselves into the future and see that our grandchildren and the grandchildren of our adversaries could easily have an intimate and common future. Through this process, we can imagine ourselves in a relational network that includes our adversaries. This kind of imagination can allow us to see beyond our current conflicts and biases. It prompts us to work for the common good of all. It also motivates us to understand differences in views and values, and through this, can be a pathway out of hatred and objectification of others.
The second kind of imagination is making ambiguity, curiosity, inquiry, humility, and “not-knowing” allies in the process of coming alongside our enemies, those who are suffering, and those who are very different from us. It takes imagination to hold open the heart to inconceivable possibilities and the very things that threaten us. This teaching from John Paul reminded me of my teacher Bernie Glassman’s admonition to rest in “not knowing,” one of the three Peacemaker Tenets or what Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind.”
A third kind of imagination is one that allows us to imagine a different future. John Paul has called this the “creative imagination,” the ability to envision the future in a way that rehumanizes all the players and creates the possibility for transformative change, even against all odds. This species of imagination points to resilient purpose and revolutionary patience, the capacity to be not afraid or impatient as we imagine a vaster horizon than we had believed possible.
The fourth kind of imagination is the “imagination of risk”—the risk of not being attached to outcomes, the risk of sitting with the unknown, the risk of reaching out beyond divisions and meeting uncertainty with curiosity and strength. And to have the courage and love to meet the resistance within our own communities and our own minds as we endeavor to end dehumanization, objectification, and suffering.
The power of imagination and healthy empathy can let us see things from a vastly different perspective and can guide and inspire us to resist the normalization of the intolerable.