Imagination makes human different from animals


I am convinced that art is as important as science and religion. Art separates us human from other life forms. It surprises me that some people hate the City Council spending money on Art. Other animals spend all their time and thinking about eating, mating, and mere survival. They are not into prayer, quantum physics, or symphony because you can not touch nor eat them. I don’t think my cat thinks of giving up kibble for Van Gogh.

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It sounds strange coming from a scientist. But if you think about it more deeply, it makes sense. Imagination makes us curios about everything invisible or unknown and inspire us to try to find behind what we can not see. It makes us creative. That’s why we, unlike other living things, spend money and time to art, science, and religion.

The animal nature, or inability to be concerned about what we do not see, made Montreal known for its excellent and efficient snow removal service but without decent sewer system dumping raw sewage into the St. Lawrence river for years, like Halifax and Victoria until recently. The result of public’s apathy in what they do not see.

The flip side is: it is hard to make a living on imagination. Many people think creativity out of imagination is unimportant. They don’t want tax money spent on Art Gallery or Theatre, and shout “Fix the potholes!” So, if you are an abstract artists or a minister who preaches about some dead guy who lived 2000 years ago, you have to be prepared to have a job that feeds you and pay the bills. My brother-in-law took early retirement from a good civil service job so that he could spend all his time playing guitar. Einstein, before he found a good position in university, had a job in the Patent Registry Office. Theoretical Physics was not exactly a money maker. The work that makes you feel you have a life worth living is called vocation. It gives you the sense of your worth no matter how much it costs or how little it pays.

Some people are lucky to have a good paying job that gives them fulfilment. People in health care professions for example. Academics, artisans, botanists, carpenters, chefs, teachers, etc. But many are not that lucky. One day, my favourite tenor of the University Opera Workshop came knocking our door as a cleaner of the Merry Maids house cleaning service. I have seen other artists in disguise as a house painter, a chef, a security guard, a bartender, etc. Majority of the artists I know have other occupations. I am familiar with such a life style because I am a father of an artist. Art is a vocation not necessarily a way to make living. The same with religion and pure science. Some make enough money to live on but many do not. Vincent Van Gogh never earned enough money to live on from his painting before he died. All his life, he was dependent on the financial support of his businessman brother Theo. Now his each painting commands millions of dollars.

Likewise, religion is a calling. Monks and nuns in many religions often earn livelihood as teachers, nurses, even as butchers and cheese makers in order to make the pursuit of their vocation possible. Remember Oka cheese? Monks in Oka Quebec make it. An oldest monastery in the world has sustained itself since 1605 from the income from famous liqueur: “Chartreuse.” Their vocation is “silence.” They sit all day in total silence to pray and meditate. That’s no way to make money. Instead they make delicious booze and sell it. In many Buddhist countries in Asia you see monks and nuns with begging bowls standing on the street corners or walking house to house begging for charity. It’s a way to learn humility while the collections sustain them financially.

As the society is increasingly secular, all who dedicate themselves to religious life must recover the sense of vocation. Artists have never lost it. In Japan when I was in the seminary preparing myself for my life in religious calling, the seminary offered the course to qualify us for a high school teacher’s certificate. Many of my former class mates in Japan supplement their income from other occupations often as school teachers. My nephew who is a minister of a small church in Tokyo supplements his income singing with a group of professional singers, in bars and cabarets, at birthday parties and wedding receptions, etc.

What distinguish humans from other animals is an unquenchable desire to see what’s beyond. We are never satisfied until we find what’s out there. So we make calculated guess called hypothesis and imagine what may be out there through artistic expressions, scientific research, and deep thinking: meditation. However, many of us do not have patience to bother and think it’s waste of time and money. But if everyone stops going after what we imagine, we will be the same as other living organisms interested only in eating, procreation, and survival.

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