Failure of imagination. These three words – this statement – are so simple yet so complex. The phrase “Failure of imagination” has been around for a long time and spoken by many. It has almost turned into a cliché of describing what went catastrophically wrong in a given situation. But what if the words are true? Both globally and domestically, we are at a crossroads on several different fronts. The problems that we face are complex. However, are they complex beyond our ability to mitigate them? Are we helpless to bring about change? Are our laws and our policies not mighty enough to alter the path that those that they guide? While there are limitations to what we can do, the answer to these questions should be no. As Robert F. Kennedy once stated in his speech in South Africa during their Day of Affirmation, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” We should be able to contribute to a change in society. We need to be able to make that change. Yet, we need to take a risk to affect that change. We need to imagine that we can change our future. Only by imagining a better tomorrow, can we make a better tomorrow possible.
So, we go back to the phrase again. Failure of imagination. Looking upon some of the woes that are inflicting pain upon our society and our world today, could one problem be that we are daring to dream? To imagine? It at least seems plausible that this could be case.
As we think of that phrase, examples may come to mind. What has caused me to think of this phrase is an example from American history. Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy dared the United States to dream – to imagine. To imagine and to see exploration beyond the realm of which we were aware existed – the lands and the seas. Rather, let us explore a new frontier. The frontier of outer space. The Moon. Thus, began an era of technological movement and innovative dreaming. Project Mercury to the Gemini Project and finally to Apollo. It is the start of the Apollo era where our phrase comes into our world in this case.
January 1967. A plugs out test wasn’t supposed to be dangerous. No man would fly into space or beyond the confines of the launch pad. Yet, this is when tragedy struck. Mired in a communications line breakdown issue, a sealed cockpit with a latched hatch door exploded into flames – the result of a faulty wire igniting in an enclosed area filled with 100% oxygen. Fifteen seconds was all it took. Gone were rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee, veteran Ed White (the first American to walk in space) and Gus Grissom (one of the original Mercury astronauts). A lot of time was spent trying to figure what went wrong. Astronaut Colonel Frank Borman was asked this during a Congressional hearing. He responded, “Failure of imagination”. The TV series From the Earth to the Moon highlights some of the testimony this way: “A failure of imagination. We’ve always known there was the possibility of fire in a spacecraft. But the fear was that it would happen in space, when you’re 180 miles from terra firma and the nearest fire station. That was the worry. No one ever imagined it could happen on the ground. If anyone had thought of it, the test would’ve been classified as hazardous. But it wasn’t. We just didn’t think of it. Now who’s fault is that? Well, it’s North American’s fault. It’s NASA’s fault. It’s the fault of every person who ever worked on Apollo. It’s my fault. I didn’t think the test was hazardous. No one did. I wish to God we had.”
Read Col. Borman’s words, whether they are from a Congressional transcript or TV series. The failure that occurred here did not occur due to some uncontrollable force. On the contrary, it was preventable. But no one thought of the situation in which it did occur. There was no plan. Failure was the end result.
Look at the world that we live within. See the parallels? We cannot afford to have a failure of imagination. We cannot afford to stand aside and let things happen as they may. We need to plan. We need to dream. We need to think. We need to imagine. Then, maybe, we can start solving some of the problems that face us. We need to plan for sight seen and unseen. In the film Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis, there is a line that struck me as interesting when it comes to planning. In response to a conversation about strategy and following your moral compass, Lincoln utters this line: “A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing. But it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”
As we strike forward, let us not sink in the swamp that is failure of imagination. Let us be a strong, intelligent and compassionate people, who work for the betterment of all mankind. Let us have a plan and plan for all. Let us use our imaginations to avoid the tragedy that has befallen so many in the passages of history before us. Let us be the ripple of hope that Robert Kennedy described in that Day of Affirmation speech. That is how we will triumph as a world and as a society in an ever-complicated world. We can bring the flowers that exist in the world to bear so long as we use every once of our imagination and will to keep them alive and bring them to the front of the picture.