“I Just Can’t Imagine”

When bad things happen to other people, we often say “I just can’t imagine….” Usually, we say this to acknowledge that something bad has happened and to express sympathy or regret. However, the phrase “I just can’t imagine” does neither of those things. In fact, saying “I just can’t imagine” is a bit of a cop-out. Our language needs to align more closely with our intentions. So, instead of saying “I just can’t imagine,” we should say “I can only imagine.”

Whatever our intentions, words speak for themselves. “I just can’t imagine” is code for “I don’t want to imagine what you’re going through.” “I just can’t imagine” is neither kind nor comforting. It allows us to create distance between ourselves and another person’s pain or misfortune. When we claim that we “can’t imagine” what someone else is going through, we protect ourselves. Protecting ourselves does nothing to help a person who is suffering.

Worse, when we say “I just can’t imagine” this or that we are lying. We can imagine anything we want to imagine. We imagine ourselves in others’ shoes every time we read a book or watch tv or a movie. Sometimes we worry about experiences we haven’t had and do not want to have. When we worry, we imagine what it would be like to have those experiences. Anytime we think about what has happened or what is happening to someone, we imagine it.

The truth is, we “can’t not imagine” what has happened to another person when we hear about it. We can, however, choose to stop thinking about it. Choosing not to think too much about what has happened to someone does not mean that we can’t think about it. It definitely does not mean that we shouldn’t think about it.

Historically Speaking

In my courses on African American literature and culture, I teach students about the history of lynching in the United States. This is a topic around which there exists much cultural amnesia to this day. Among other things, I insist that we try to imagine how white Americans were able to rationalize the terrorism they inflicted on blacks for over sixty years.
For example, why did it make sense to a middle-class white woman to leave church on Sunday, drive to a setting where she, along with her family and members of the community, watched the torture and murder of a black person? Why did it make sense to those present to pose for photographs with what was left of the victim? How could they have enjoyed a picnic after doing what they did and seeing what they saw?
“I just can’t imagine” is not an acceptable response to those questions for many reasons. For instance, the people who performed and saw those atrocities were no different from many of us. That ought to scare us a little. What didn’t they know they didn’t know? What difference would it have made if they had known what they didn’t know? What difference can we make in the world today knowing what we know now? Are we willing to use what we know to make a difference? If so, what kind of difference and how will we go about making it? Saying “I just can’t imagine” does not take us where we need to go in our efforts both to understand others’ experiences and to act as empathic human beings.

“I Can Only Imagine”–a Better Alternative

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a 14-year-old boy. Gauge, the son of my former horse shoer, Brad Malone, and his wife Shanna, was killed in an accidental shooting incident. He died in his father’s arms. I have imagined what Brad and Shanna have been feeling and experiencing. I’ve imagined what they must have felt in the minutes and hours and days after they heard the gunshot and found their son. I have imagined what parents do with the dreams and visions they had for their child’s life once he is gone.

I am not a parent. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent and to have that bond that apparently feels like no other. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent who has lost a child, suddenly, or otherwise.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t imagine such things. What it means is that I can only imagine how such loss feels for parents. If I truly care about the people who have suffered such losses, then I will imagine what they have gone through, what they are going through, and what they may go through in the future.

It doesn’t matter if how I imagine someone’s experience isn’t entirely, or even at all, correct. What matters is that, even though I can only imagine, I imagine anyway. What matters is that I don’t cop-out by saying, “I just can’t imagine.”

Here’s the Thing

So, we need to stop saying “I just can’t imagine” for two reasons. First, sometimes people say it because they don’t want to imagine what someone else is going through. If you really don’t care, then drop the act. Second, and I like to think this is the more common scenario, most people say ” I just can’t imagine” when what they really mean is “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

To admit that we can “only imagine” another’s experience is to say two important things. First, it says “I care enough to try to understand what you’re experiencing.” Second, it says “I acknowledge the likelihood of a gap between what I imagine and your actual experience.” The latter is important because it lessens our risk of imposing our own narrative on someone else’s experience.

If we really care about people as most of us say we do, then we must be willing to imagine what they have gone through or what they are going through. That’s what we call empathy. My friend Michael Cameron defines empathy as “the quality of being able to feel what others feel.” He claims that it affords us “the greatest insight into who [others] are, allowing [us] to find ways to make the greatest impact in their life.” The mission statement of The Empathy Museum (yes, it’s a thing) speaks to the transformative power of empathy: “empathy can not only transform our personal relationships, but also help tackle global challenges such as prejudice, conflict and inequality.”

When we imagine what someone else is going through we nurture the development of empathy, which is one of the most valuable human traits. We also nurture one another as human beings and honor one another as fellow travelers on this wonky journey we call life. I can only imagine where we’d be without one another.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.