Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Using Our Imagination: Creativity, Resilience, Gratitude and Keepin’ On

Sean Decatur
November 20, 2017

For the past two months, my playlist has consisted of a single song on an infinite loop: “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. This obsession has lasted longer than many previous pop music immersions, so much so that the other residents of Cromwell Cottage have insisted I wear headphones around the house.

“I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” is the second track on the amazing 1973 album “Imagination.” Track one is the iconic hit “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but I think the second track is even better. For me, the song brings a rush of memories: I was only five years old when this album came out, but I clearly remember watching the performance on “Soul Train” and attending a Gladys Knight and the Pips concert in the summer of 1974 (one of my earliest live music experiences). The opening horns marching in on top of the driving drumbeat, the deep growl of Knight’s voice, the rhythmic echoing of the Pips — it all adds up to a remarkably complete pop performance.

Yet it is the lyrics that have held my attention, especially the opening verse: “I’ve got to use / my imagination / To think of good reasons / To keep on keepin’ on.” I love the invocation of imagination, the power of intense thought and creativity to solve any problem, as well as the exclamation of resilience and grit in the repeated phrase “keep on keepin’ on.” Creativity and resilience, a powerful combination that Gladys exhorts over and over in this song, from the determination to “make the best of a bad situation” to the need to look beyond the standard approaches to resolving a dispute in a lost relationship because “our misunderstandings / are too well understood.”

In other words, if you have never listened to this song, stop reading right now, click here, and enjoy.

This 44-year-old song finds particular resonance in 2017, a time marked by social and political upheaval and polarization. Much of this has been due to what I have come to call the thestral effect, after the magical creatures in the Harry Potter series which can only be seen by those who have seen someone die; invisible to most, they are made visible by the trauma of witnessing and accepting death. The issues that dominate the headlines of the day — whether new reports of pervasive sexual harassment, new incidents reflecting deeply entrenched racism, new evidence of the impact of climate change, new tragic mass shootings  — are not at all new. Rather, they have been present but often barely visible to the broader public or in popular media, until the seismic events (and resulting traumas) of the past year put them front and center. Each day seems to bring another shocking piece of news, and each day we become more aware of the thestrals that have been haunting us all along.

Even under normal circumstances, November, like its springtime cousin April, can be a grueling month on campus. Midterms are still raging while end-of-term assignments are beginning to loom large. Concerts, recitals, exhibits start to appear on the calendar in bunches. Dusk arrives earlier and earlier, and gray skies become more common than sunny days. And for some, points of tension simmering over the course of the semester feel as if they reach a breaking point; whether among roommates, teammates, colleagues, or even students and administrators, sometimes our misunderstandings become too well understood.

Fortunately, November has a secret weapon that April lacks: Thanksgiving break, a much-needed moment to catch one’s breath, reflect upon one’s own life and the world, and, as Gladys sings, think of good reasons to keep on keepin’ on.

It is not just the time away from the usual routine that is helpful here (though by all means, the time off is much needed). At the risk of sounding like Linus at the end of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” it is the ritual of expressing thanks that gives Thanksgiving break its special power. The concept of gratitude, and its impact on spiritual well-being and sense of self, is ancient, having long been the subject of philosophy and religion. Studies in medicine and neuroscience suggest that gratitude’s impact may go beyond spiritual strength to physical health: There is published research correlating feeling grateful to improved heart health and stimulated activity in the brain.

Expressing gratitude can have a positive impact on feelings of depression or anxiety, giving a bit of light in the gray of November. Gladys hints at this when she sings “Darkness all around me, blackin’ out the sun / Old friends call me but I just don't feel like talkin’ to anyone / Emptiness has found me and it just won't let me go / I go right on livin' baby, but why I just don't know” then follows with the refrain “I've really got to use my imagination / To think of good reasons / to keep on keepin' on.”

So what are my reasons to keep on keepin’ on?

We can begin with all of the standard items: I have a wonderful family (including those Cromwell residents who tolerate my music choices: my wife, two children and my mom; and of course, Skittles and Roo). Considering that natural disasters have left many in Puerto Rico still without power and shelter; citizens of Flint, Michigan, are still in need of a permanent source of fresh water after over 1,300 days; earthquakes have devastated parts of Mexico, Iran, and Iraq; and many members of the armed services and first responders engage in dangerous work day after day, I am especially grateful that we are all healthy, safe and together.

I can also make a list of my current pop culture obsessions that make me happy: ’70s soul music; the pending Dec. 14 release of “The Last Jedi” (I hope to see some of you at the theater in Mount Vernon for the first showing); intense family battles over Settlers of Catan (Renee is surprisingly ferocious); Yaa Gyasi’s novel “Homegoing” (especially powerful after my recent trip to Ghana); and the prospect of watching “Bringing up Baby” with the family next week (quite possibly the funniest movie of all time).

And, I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to be at Kenyon, at this specific place, at this specific moment in history. At this point when the days feel darkened by more than just our seasonal position relative to the sun, I am perhaps most grateful for the awesome power of creative thinking and problem solving, the skills that all of us here on the Hill work to hone and develop. My work as an educator, engaging daily with challenging ideas and with the energy, optimism and idealism of students, gives me a great deal of confidence that the most challenging of social problems can and will be solved.

I see evidence of this every day on campus, whether through conversations with students and faculty struggling with big issues or engaged in direct service work, working to make progress on improving education, supporting those impacted by poverty and addiction, or working to change cultural attitudes on sexual assault and violence. When we collectively use our imaginations we can do even more than make the best of a bad situation — we can tame the thestrals around us.

To students, faculty and staff, please enjoy the Thanksgiving break; take time to rest, to reflect and to express gratitude. And return to campus prepared to keep on keepin’ on.