Culture and Tradition: Exile

My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.

Ursula K. LeGuin

I am continually drawn to the double edged nature of culture, and this quotation from LeGuin brings me there again.

My culture introduced me to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy–all imaginary characters that punctuated my childhood with moments of excitement, family gatherings, rites of passage often in the context of a religious framework.  This same culture brought me Jesus, God, heaven and hell and the Protestant Work Ethic.  More imaginary figures?

In many respects these and other items of my cultural inheritance seeded and encouraged my imagination.  It also acted to limit my imagination.  Early on, it was clear from my cultural inheritance that to be an accepted and good person within that cultural group that one had to be a hard working, Christian (which by all means meant Protestant), American citizen who supported the US in every way, heterosexual and white.  Non-Christians were going to hell as were people who didn’t support the US.  I couldn’t imagine the life of people who were not white (and it didn’t help that I didn’t know many people who were not white when I was very young).  People who didn’t work and who weren’t heterosexual were spoken of–when they were spoken of–in very negative terms.

I couldn’t imagine.  A good American who was not Christian.  A Christian who was not Protestant.  A gay person who was a good person. A non-American. An Atheist.  I couldn’t imagine–until I began to meet all of these people. That would be many years later and in gratitude to university experiences, travel, books, work and an imagination.

My cultural inheritance did encourage my imagination, and it did put strong prohibitions on it.  That double edged conditioning of my cultural inheritance created a good deal of struggle for me growing up, and if I am honest still does in some ways today.  I am happy to report, though, that imagination wins.  I am fairly convinced that many human failures are failure of imagination.  To follow our imaginations, as LeGuin says, gives us the whole world, but it also often exiles us from it.  I think that it may well be that when we find ourselves exiled by our own imaginations we are in the place where imagination’s most powerful gifts may reveal themselves–if we are willing to go there.

Bob Patrick

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