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Science is a wonderful thing, but science is good for some uses and not for others. Imaginative fictions are a wonderful thing, but imaginative fictions are good for some uses and not for others. People are remarkably good at allowing a decontextualized and incomplete version of science to displace imaginative fictions in ways that are counterproductive and allowing rationally unanchored and dogmatically clung to imaginative fictions to displace science in ways that are counterproductive.

We are biological creatures. From a scientific perspective, that’s really all we are, everything else being a function of our biological existence. But the biological fact of perception and cognition along with the innovation of complex forms of communication created wrinkles in that fact, aspects of ourselves that travel beyond our biological borders and survive our biological demise.

I apprehend, in limited and cognitively mediated ways, a universe in macrocosm and microcosm and everything in between that is not fully limited to my biological boundaries. I can communicate those perceptions and cognitions–some of which might be unique innovations of my own–to others, some of whom might survive me and carry those innovations of mine forward into time beyond the timeframe of my biological existence. A person with whom I am most intimate for the longest period of time–a spouse or, even more so, child of mine–might absorb so much of my cognitive material, of my cognitive essence, that they carry a substantial part of who and what I was into the world and to others after my biological existence ceases to exist. If I produce enduring expressions of that cognitive and emotional dimension of who and what I am–novels or paintings or musical compositions or published scientific theories–then even aside from the survival of some aspect of who and what I am beyond the time frame of my biological existence through those who intimately know me and survive me, some aspect of who and what I am survives in some material form that exists to some extent independently of biological forms altogether, other than requiring other biological forms to convert them back into cognitions and emotions.

To understand what is meant by “some aspect of who and what I am” in the above paragraph, one must make a distinction between the biological entity and the cognitive identity of that biological entity. Most of what we think of as ourselves–who and what we are–is cognitive. When asked “what kind of person are you?” one rarely answers, “the kind of person who is 5’ 10” tall, has white hair balding on top, a white beard, blue eyes…..” One usually answers in cognitive terms: “a person who likes to tell stories, to philosophize about the nature of our existence, to laugh and cause others to laugh….” We identify more strongly and more deeply with our cognitive selves than our biological selves. And while our cognitive selves are a function of our biological selves, once produced within the framework it has an existence that is no longer strictly bound to our biological being. If I write a story and share it with others, that story, which is the cognitive product of my biological being, continues to exist (as long as other biological beings are aware of it or have the possibility of becoming aware of it) even when the biological entity that produced it no longer does.

Primitive human beings, unincumbered by the various forms of reductionism brought on by civilization and even more intensely by science, had in some ways a more viceral understanding of this nonbiological aspect of our existence than we do. They lived in a reality more richly populated by stories and fictions and less constrained by scientific methodology. While a scientific orientation has many advantages, one disadvantage is that it shifts focus to ourselves as biological entities and away from ourselves as cognitive entities that can survive our biological existence in some ways. The notion of “life after death” is a religious notion rather than a scientific one even though, in a very real sense, who and what we are as cognitive entities survives our biological death. This is a tricky concept for modern Western minds to grasp, because we want to distinguish our cognitive product from our capacity for producing it, insisting that our capacity for producing it dies with our biological body and so our cognitive existence does as well. But a story that I create is a part of who and what I am not just in the act of creating it but also in its continued existence after I create it, and that continued existence does not depend on the continued existence of my biological self.

More broadly than just life after death, a more primitive shared cognitive landscape is simultaneously more focused on the reality of that shared cognitive landscape than on the reality of the biological beings producing it, and more focused on connecting it to the world around them in ways that both celebrate and effectively navigate that world. The mythological history of the past, the inclusion of oneself in that ongoing story in the present, and the recognition that the same story continues indefinitely into the future imbues one with a stronger, richer sense of belonging to something timeless and eternal rather than being bound to the lifespan of a human body. This is an area in which a more imaginative, fictional orientation actually brings us closer to an aspect of reality than a more reductionist, fact-oriented approach is able to. I refer to it as a more literary and less literal understanding of reality, a modality that is best suited to things or aspects of things that are not empirically accessible. But be careful! A more literary and less literal approach does not mean turning fictions into rigid, dogmatic beliefs, but rather into flexible and accommodating forms of understanding that do not create barriers to more precise empirical understandings in the interstices.

What’s the point? The point is that modernity has bought many benefits, and I am a staunch advocate of using disciplined, methodical reason for many purposes, but we have also lost much of value along the way, and I am an equally staunch advocate of recapturing our primitive, childlike wonder, our sense of a reality so full of mystery and magic that it can only be fully understood through stories. And I strive to help create a future together that marries these two modalities into something new and wonderful, something that is neither the dry and dead rationalism of people who feel no awe nor the foolish and self-destructive superstitions of those who do not provide their awe with the rudder of reason. To create an ever kinder, wiser, and more just world, we need not only to become more rational and empathetic, but also imaginative and humble; we need to feel the awe of a person who looks at the stars and sees gods in their chariots of fire, combined with the pragmatism of a person who knows that the corpus of human knowledge and wisdom can liberate us to celebrate that awe without the constant intrusion or threat of intrusion of the terror and pain and brutality that has always encroached upon it.

As a global tumbleweed finally come to rest in South Jeffco, Colorado (Southwest Denver suburbs), I appreciate all the more the wonders of my new home, the place where my seven-year-old daughter was born and is growing up. Even in my nomadic days, I knew that I would one day relish seeing the same houses and same trees, same walls and same garden, same faces and same places, day after day, year after year, recognizing the marvelous in the mundane. I’ve always savored the familiarity of those favorite haunts I’ve settled into for longer stretches, or returned to frequently, and sought that familiarity even in the briefest of one-time visits, recognizing that a traveler who does not connect with the world he wanders only brushes across its surface, forever passing it by.

I recall several times, on my travels, being in the most exotic of third world villages, watching local eyes widen in wonder when I told them that I was from Chicago (“Al Capone!” most would immediately shout, having an iconic character that is synonymous for them with that far-off place veiled in legends of its own). The world is a vast and richly colorful story, our own lives and locales no less so than any other. Like beauty, how fascinating a place or slice of life is is a matter of perception, and there is considerable value in perceiving it more rather than less liberally.

But I am well aware of how often we forget to see the world through the eyes of a traveler, or of an extraterrestrial anthropologist, or of a primordial human being animating his or her surroundings with spirits of the imagination. What a loss not to be able to see in a wilderness river the singing nymphs dancing their way from mountain springs to surging sea, or in the mist-shrouded woods the mystical forces whispering to the human soul! So too the human narrative of which we are a part, so full of subtlety and complexity, of passions and aspirations, of strife and folly and occasional triumphs of great courage and generosity, is our own shared Odyssey, as we navigate between the Charybdises and Scyllas of our voyage together through history.

It is difficult for me to see the world in any other way, as some mundane drudgery or mere slog through life. The sound of a gentle breeze fluttering the new leaves of spring, or the ferocious wind howling like a hungry giant; the chirping of birds and laughter of children; even the murmur of passing cars or jet stream of passing airliners overhead; all constantly awaken my sense of wonder, my sense of joy to be a part of this marvelous, ultimately inexplicable existence of ours.

I try to teach my daughter to see the world in the same way, with games and stories and humor and shared curiosity. We can bring our own surroundings to life, by imagining the red-rock formations just over the Hogback along Coyote Song Trail in Ken Caryl’s South Valley Park as magical creatures petrified during an ancient epic adventure, sentinels who will remain at their posts until eons of wind and water wipe them away.

As a teacher, too, in Denver and Jeffco and Littleton, I tried to inspire my students to see the world through wondering eyes. When we speak of public education policy and education reform, we need to remember how important this goal is, seeking to transcend the ritualism of education, the rote drilling and shallow aspirations so many consider to be its essence, and make it instead a celebration of life and an inspiration to the mind and soul. The mechanics of how to accomplish this are important, but they are more “organics” than “mechanics,” something that arises from an institution that we must have the wisdom to ensure remains much more than the sum of its parts.

When we reduce education to something less than that, to a mere factory of curriculum conveyer belts along which we shuttle our children, exposing them as much as possible to assembly line teachers performing automated functions, lost in the Kabuki Theater of professional development programs and faculty meetings and parent-teacher conferences and narrowly, mechanically, and generally dysfunctionally defined “accountability,” we reinforce and reproduce our loss of imagination and concommitant loss of the deeper intellectual talents that imagination alone can foster. For a sense of wonder provokes a hunger for knowledge and insight, one that grows only more ravenous the more it is satisfied.

Finally, as a politically engaged advocate for interacting with our social institutional landscape as conscious and compassionate participants in its endless formation and transformation, I am increasingly convinced that that same sense of wonder is what serves us best. Many dismiss politics as something squalid and base, some remote appendage to our shared existence that we have to hold our nose and reluctantly tolerate. But it can be a rich and delightful celebration of life, a vehicle for our imaginations and aspirations, a major keyboard accessing the “word processor” we vie to type our narratives into as we write our shared story together.

Here in Colorado, I discovered state and local politics for the first time, and have found it to be surprisingly intimate and accessible. While many seem to think of our government and its officers as some remote “other,” that is a matter of choice, for there are numerous opportunities to participate in it, to be a part of it, as responsible and motivated members of a popular sovereignty should be. Such participation should not just be a matter of making noise and clamoring for the respective conflicting false certainties we hold, but also listening and learning, becoming informed and developing increasing awareness of the nuances involved in governing ourselves wisely.

When Aristotle said that “man is a political animal,” he meant, in Greek (referring to the polis, the classical Greek form of the political state), that we thrive best by being active members of our community. We can do this by getting to know our city, county, and state representatives, by attending events and listening to speakers, by engaging both with those who think like us and those who don’t, and by embracing the multi-faceted wonder of our existence.

We humans have such an enormous capacity for creating either great beauty or great ugliness together, of realizing our potential in service to our expansive humanity or of surrendering it in service to our animalistic and destructive urges. Which we do in any given instance is less a function of whether our ideology is “the right one” or not, and more a function of whether we see the world through wondering eyes. Wisdom arises from wonder, and well-being arises from wisdom. Let’s all wonder our way into an ever-improving future.

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