In our human world, there are many imaginary things. A very common fallacy is to think that imaginary things are unimportant because they are not real. This line of thinking sounds logical, but it lacks both social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Humans are social animals. Whether something is important depends, not necessarily on its physical reality, but on its social significance and emotional meaning.
From 1996 to 2016, I have been listening to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion almost every weekend, almost religiously. I loved the show. There are many things to like about this radio show — a wide variety of music, poetry, celebrity artists, humor, the special sound effects and vivid storytelling. The section I love the most, however, is Garrison Keillor’s storytelling monologue, named “News from Lake Wobegon,” which always opened with the statement, “Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my hometown, out on the edge of the prairie.”
Lake Wobegon is Garrison Keillor’s invention. It is a mythical small town in the heart of America where people still live their lives according to old customs and traditional values. Perhaps it is true that it is always quiet in Lake Wobegon. But these “quiet weeks” are always packed with intriguing stories which tell much about human nature and certain truths about our society. Truths which may not be politically correct to tell. But cloaked in the form of fiction in a lighthearted radio show, they somehow become acceptable, even funny to listen to. For about two decades, I felt that I was a proud resident of Lake Wobegon, a regular patron of the Chatterbox Café, a member of the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility and a big fan of Dorothy’s exquisite rhubarb pie. I imagined I made friend with Pastor Liz, who pays regular visits to the old and the sick. The fact that I am a Chinese who came originally from Hong Kong does not matter. I felt as if I grew up in Lake Wobegon. I cherished those modest Midwestern values. Such is the power of good storytelling. Perhaps what endears me about Lake Wobegon is that it is, in essence, a tale about the simple life in an agricultural society. It is about how life was like in the pro-modern days, before the secularization of society, before the loss of soulfulness, before the invasion of TV, big corporations and endless advertising.
It attests to Garrison Keillor’s creativity that not only is Lake Wobegon totally made up, the show also features fake advertisements and fake sponsors. Somehow these invented features add color and liveliness to the show. Of course, much of the history of the rhubarb pie, as Keillor told it, is invented too. According to Keillor, rhubarb grows in the wild. It is never advertised and cannot be bought in supermarkets. There is no “Rhubarb Board” to promote this food product. These “facts” made me an instant fan of rhubarb, despite the fact that I have never tasted it. Garrison Keillor is a master of mythmaking. His show is full of imagined things. Besides the music, the dramas and the comedies, you can also find uncommon wisdom subtly hidden in the fun-making and the festive atmosphere. In one of the episodes, Garrison Keillor mused about the fictitious nature of Lake Wobegon. People know that Lake Wobegon is an imagined place, but what about Minnesota, the state where this small town is supposed to reside in? Isn’t Minnesota a product of our shared imagination too? Certainly, the boundaries of the state of Minnesota are imagined. The rocks, the mountains, the rivers and the hundreds of lakes are not marked “Minnesota.” Is Minnesota real? Extending this further, is the United States of America real? Is China real? Or are they all figments of our imagination, albeit powerful ones?
There is a common tendency to dismiss imagined things as unimportant. We also tend to think that the power of imagination is not as important as the ability to do math, perform scientific investigations or create “real” objects. But is this true? People who think this way are typically “no-nonsense” realists and pragmatists. Let’s not forget what Albert Einstein said about the power of imagination. He said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
I worked in the education field for 15 years. As a veteran educator and math teacher, I can fully appreciate the importance of imagination. While analysis and abstract thinking are important for proving mathematical theorems, imagination is crucial for creative problem solving and inventions. Most people consider the work of mathematicians and scientists as cut-and-dry. Few of them understand how important imagination is in the work of a professional mathematician. Yet, mathematician George Polya related an interesting anecdote from the life of David Hilbert, who is one of the most influential and widely recognized mathematicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Math majors would know about “Hilbert space” and “Hilbert’s Program.” Hilbert once had a student who left the field of mathematics to become a poet. According to Polya, David Hilbert is reported to have said of this student, “I never thought that he had enough imagination to be a mathematician.” I taught geometry for four years in an American high school. Let us note that geometry, a very useful and practical field of mathematics, is full of imaginary objects. Just think about the basic building blocks of geometry — points, lines and planes. A point can be understood as a mathematical object without dimensions — it has no length, width or height. Certainly, such an object has no physical reality. Even a tiny, tiny dot in real life has these dimensions under the magnifying glass or the microscope. Similarly, a straight line can be understood as a one-dimensional mathematical object which extends indefinitely in both directions. Again, such an object does not really exist in the physical world. All lines we see in the real world have width, and they are never perfectly straight. Geometry is therefore a field full of imaginary objects. Yet, geometry is tremendously useful in our daily life. It has applicability in art, architecture, home design and decoration. It also plays a role in global positioning systems (GPS), cartography and astronomy. Just that an object is imaginary does not mean that it has no practical value. In fact, the human world is full of imaginary objects which are tremendously useful and significant.
One of the most impressive books I have read is Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapients: A Brief History of Humankind. In this book, Harari tried to explain why Homo Sapients stand out as the winner in the animal world. We can all agree that humans are not the strongest in terms of physical strength. Many other animals surpass humans in both strength and speed. Harari believes that what accounts for human success has something to with what he calls the Cognitive Revolution. The use of language to communicate among the members of the same species is important for evolutionary success. But other animals too have certain language ability, although theirs may be more primitive than what the humans have. What makes humans unique and what accounts of the humans’ phenomenal success have much to do with the ability to invent fictions and use them to effectively communicate and create group solidarity. Ultimately, the humans became the winners of the evolutionary game of dominance through the invention of powerful fictions which foster a sense of common bond and enable large-scale human cooperation.
For those of you who remain unconvinced about the significance of imaginary things, Harari brought up a number of illustrative and very powerful examples — laws, justice, human rights, money and the notion of a corporation. These are all examples of useful fictions. An equivalent term used in the study of the social science is “social construct.” A human right has no physical reality, neither does a $100 bill or a big international corporation such as Amazon.com. Rather, the reality of these entities are socially constructed, through collective imagination. A $100 bill has no physical value. It is just a piece of paper. But it can be used to purchase goods because of the value we collectively assign to it. The same can be said about Amazon.com, the corporation with a market capitalization of about $872 billion. Even though it is just an abstract concept, we say that Amazon.com hires and fires employees, has physical offices in numerous geographical locations, pays taxes (or not), makes profits or sustain losses. That is an imagined entity does not detract from its social reality. These imaginary entities called corporations account for much of the success of modern capitalism.
Exactly the same analysis can be applied to the spiritual realm. The modern atheists are quick to dismiss God as a figment of our imagination, as an “imaginary friend.” But even if we believe that the existence of God is fictional, we cannot deny that this “fiction” has been one of the most formidable forces which shape Western civilization, for better or worse. In the non-Western world, on the other hand, Buddhism has a presence of over two thousand and five hundred years. Perhaps the most unique teaching of the Buddha, a teaching which is unparalleled in any of the other world religions, is its doctrine of anatta, often translated into the doctrine of no self (or no soul). The teaching of no-self may make no “common sense” to us. We are so used to the notion that there is an “I,” a “you,” a “he,” a “she,” a “we” and a “they.” Modern science seems to agree with Buddha regarding the non-existence of the self. But how is this possible? When we use the name “Bill Gates,” we know that we are referring to a real person. This person is not fictional, is he? The denial of the existence of personal identity seems ridiculous on the surface.
But anatta can be understood quite easily once we understand the fictional nature of a corporation, or that of a university. The Apple corporation could have moved its entire operation to China or India and still retain its corporate identity. Similarly, the entire faculty or study body of Harvard University could have a complete change over and still Harvard can retain its identity as a prestigious institution of higher education. The same can be said about my personal identity. I know that I — the author of this article — am a “real” person. But in the past 40 years, the blood cells in my body probably have been completely replaced. My worldview and my ideology could have completely changed. And I could have switched my religion from Christianity to Buddhism and then back to Christianity. No matter. Nominally, I am the same person, even though everything about me has changed over a time span of four decades. The self is one of the useful fictions. Without the concept of a self, how can we interact with each other socially, form friendships and alliances, make contracts and other forms of agreements?
It is in this context that we can understand the ego. In spiritual circles, especially among Buddhists, the ego is regularly bashed. The ego sense is typically considered as the source of greed, anger, arrogance, and many negative emotions. Buddhists commonly believe that it is our ego sense which creates various forms of attachments, which expose us to all kinds of suffering. The ego can be viewed as another name for the self. Just as the self, it is an imaginary entity. It is another “useful fiction.” Yes, our ego sense can create a sense of selfishness, greed, and the will to grab hold on things and people. This does make us suffering-prone. But what will it be like without a sense of ego? It seems to me that our ego sense serves a protective function. Without an ego sense, why wouldn’t we step in front of a speeding truck? Certainly, our ego sense serves the purpose of self-preservation and survival. Yes, the ego can cause arrogance. But it is also the seat of personal pride and self-respect, which are important for both the individual and the society. Someone with a healthy dose of personal pride is less likely to produce work of inferior quality. He will also think twice before engaging in unethical activities, lest his reputation will be ruined. Frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with a sense of personal pride, school pride, ethnic pride, community pride or national pride. These are positive motivators. They urge us to improve, avoid questionable behaviors and make an effort to present our very best. The truth is that the ego has both an upside and a downside. Why do we have to always look at the ego so negatively? It is an example of partial, not holistic vision. Some spiritual people are eager to “kill the ego.” But who is that entity trying to kill the ego anyway, if not the ego itself? This is another one of the ego’s game.
The Tao Te Ching opens with the statement that “The Tao that can be stated is not the eternal Tao; the Name that can be named is not the everlasting name.” Even the term “Tao” is just a fake name, used to name something that cannot really be named. So, the self is a a fake name and the ego is an illusion. The United States of America too is an illusion, based on our shared imagination. But just that something is imagined does not mean that it is unimportant or meaningless, the self allows us to function in the society. As human beings, we are social animals. As such, many of the things we cherish are based on our shared imagination. In Buddhism, there is the teaching of two truths — conventional truth and ultimate truth. We live in the world of conventional truth most of the time. But that is alright.
The enlightened ones know the illusions but are in no hurry to annihilate them. Illusions, while potentially dangerous, can be put to good use. This is the wisdom of the Middle Way.