The Lost Art of Pretending: Imagining a Positive American Future

October 23, 2020 § 13 Comments

By Lindsey DeLoach Jones

On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, my daughters, six and eight, play with dolls on our stairs. From the bedroom where I’m folding laundry, I overhear charming caricatures of adult speech. “Hey Barbie,” my younger daughter says in imitation of a male bass, “I can train your puppies to do tricks.” She wiggles Ken, her preferred doll, back and forth as he speaks, that universal doll-gesture for conversation.

I peer around the corner, where tiny plastic dogs are being tossed through a hoop. Lowering her voice to a whisper, my oldest says, “Pretend there’s a dog show tomorrow.” The whispers are stage directions that inspire their play. Without missing a beat, they adjust the scene. When another idea strikes, my daughter whispers again, as though she can keep her exegesis from intruding on the real world they’ve created: “Pretend Barbie is the judge!” After a while, I lose track of how many times they use the word “pretend.”

This, it occurs to me, is something many adults have forgotten how to do.

It’s a truism that, after a certain age, we outgrow our imaginations. We express a mild nostalgia for Sunday afternoons spent on the stairs, making up life as we went along. But what if the loss of imagination is more than a casual, inevitable failure? There’s a darker side to our inability to pretend. No matter how we define the problem currently facing America, we may have lost the ability to see a way out.

For adults living in an increasingly threatening environment, pretending sometimes feels impossible. Others see no reason for pretending, considering it territory for the weak and foolish. For them, pretending equates to the kind of willful ignorance that allows people to shirk responsibility for making things better.

But the kind of pretending I’m talking about isn’t the kind that opposes action. It’s the kind that inspires it.

We need a collective imagination like the one Martin Luther King shared at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. King insisted, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair… Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” At his core, Dr. King was a writer. His dream speech was wishful thinking, yes, but it was backed by action, protest, force of will. One man’s private imagination had untold constructive consequences in the real world. We seem to think we have outgrown this kind of thinking, that hope is for suckers. But to abandon the project of pretending is to abandon any hope for improvement.

Even as a professional storyteller, this kind of imagination is hard for me in our current climate of fear and dread. Reading materials for fueling despair are abundant; harder to find are the voices reminding us that the fear we fuel will eventually become the air we breathe. We need time-outs to intentionally envision what a better America might look like and how we might contribute to that vision.

One thing is certain: finding a way out of a problem isn’t as simple as it is for my kids. On the stairs, a dog breaks her leg leaping over a plastic obstacle and lies on the sidelines for a few seconds. “Pretend her leg is better now,” says the older girl, and Lassie is back on her feet.

There are, of course, a few major differences between the wishful thinking of childhood and the robust moral imagination our society needs now. Children need only speak something into existence, like that miraculously hurt-and-healed dog. Adults must commit sustained effort, keeping our imaginings in front of us at all times. These become the whispered reminders of where we want to go, stage directions for our own theater of democracy. For me this means reading BIPOC authors, joining protests, supporting clear-eyed candidates with integrity. Most of all, as a writer, it means insisting on nuanced understandings and, whenever possible, hope.

But I pretend in other ways, too. I find joy in the play of my children, I read poetry. I plant gardens and cook meals and drink wine on front porches with friends. Sometimes they seem frivolous, but these things remind me of the goodness we’re after. In this country we cloister our artists as though they belong in a category all their own, one without much practical purpose. Instead, we turn to economists and politicians to find a way forward. But as has often been the case throughout history, as our collective problems become less the domain of policymakers and more the domain of the human heart, it may be the storytellers who help us imagine a future for our democracy.

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Lindsey DeLoach Jones is a professional writer, editor, and teacher in Greenville, South Carolina. She has a BA and MA in English and an MFA in nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University and has taught literature and fiction writing at Clemson University and served as Editor-in-Chief of Emrys Journal and Edible Upcountry. She co-founded a regional writer’s network called Writeshare. Among other places, her essays have been published in Paste, South Carolina Review, Literary Mama, Relief, and Ruminate. She is the winner of the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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