The Habit of Imagining

by Judith Moffett

Dr. Moffett, a poet, translator and teacher, works in the Poets-in-the-Schools programs sponsored by the Colorado and Utah state councils on the arts.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 24, 1975. pp. 1176-1179. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author questions the Golden Rule, and suggests an improvement.It takes time, energy and a bit of imagination to know about somebody else’s situation in order to decide how best to treat that person, or how to judge him or her justly.

Something is fundamentally wrong with the golden rule, that much-quoted piece of advice formulated by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount which has come into common speech as "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Its wrongness is not gross oversimplification; the amended version I’m going to suggest is almost as simple and very little longer. Nor is the problem that so many people rattle off the golden rule without trying to live by it, like the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus criticized on the grounds that "they say, and do not"; probably glib rattlers-off of the revised rule could be expected to fail as frequently to practice what they preach.

It’s not even that Jesus’ version promises returns on the investment both heavenly and worldly. Altruists, like everybody else, always do what they want most to do, and have their reward in feeling good about themselves. No, the inadequacy of the golden rule is that its traditional phrasing provides no mechanism for arriving at a valid point of view from which to apply it.

The Letter of the Rule -- and the Spirit

In his essay "The Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight," Harvard psychoanalyst Erik Erikson comments: "systematic students of ethics often indicate a certain disdain for this all-too-primitive ancestor of more logical principles; and Bernard Shaw found the rule an easy target: don’t do to another what you would like to be done by, he warned, because his tastes may differ from yours" (Insight and Responsibility [Norton, 1964], p. 226). Whereupon Erikson dismisses criticism (unrejoined) to take up advocacy -- yet Shaw’s complaint is precisely what fatally weakens the golden rule as it stands: "his tastes" -- needs, cravings, likes and dislikes -- "may differ from yours.

Let me offer a personal illustration. My mother was brought up during the Depression by her own widowed mother and a clutch of spinster aunts, rigidly Victorian Southern Baptists all. She suffered acutely for the social pariahship inflicted by her family’s old-fashioned strictness. She had to wear long winter underwear and heavy overshoes in bad weather; she remembers vividly how in grade school her teachers would let her start getting ready to go home five minutes earlier than the rest of the class because of all the layers she had to put on. She was never allowed to use makeup, or go to movies and dances, or play cards. Her dearest wish during adolescence was to "be like everybody else," to be allowed to practice the outward and visible signs of social conformity. She grew up determined not to subject a daughter of hers to the needless humiliations she had endured -- a commendable ambition and a precise application of the golden rule.

Of the letter; but, alas, not of the spirit. My mother had overlooked the possibility that her own daughter might turn out to have different needs and wishes, and as it became increasingly clear that I wasn’t about to provide her with a vicarious "normal" childhood or adolescence in the natural course of things, she proceeded to force things out of their natural course. I was a tomboy. I had nothing against mud and coveted other kids’ rubber boots for years, but Mom had loathed them far too heartily ever to buy any for me. As soon as I turned 13, she presented me with my first tube of cherry-red lipstick and my first pair of high heels -- three-inch heels they were in those days, and I thought them not only uncomfortable but incredibly hideous -- and from then on made me go to church thus shod and painted, indistinguishable from the other eighth-graders whose arms hadn’t had to be twisted.

At ten I had objected so violently to the dancing lessons she’d wanted me to take that I escaped them -- but not the various junior high semiformal dances and high school proms where I spent each endless, unnatural, awkward hour dying for release. My poor mother, in short, applied the golden rule and treated me as she wished she had been treated, instead of trying to put herself in my very different place and asking herself what would be the fairest and wisest way of treating me.

The Amended Rule

Were the golden rule properly interpreted and applied, an acting script for conflicts like these would read simply: Let your children be themselves; don’t force them, overtly or covertly, to be the way you wish they were. But to construct the rule thus generally requires an ability to step one mental stride backward toward abstraction -- something that would never occur to most people. Much more sensible to rewrite the golden rule so that it needn’t be reformulated in order for dangers like these to be avoided.

To "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" implies that people are all alike, and that one proceeds by projecting one’s own preferences upon the rest of humanity, then treating everyone else as a replica of oneself. Now, all of us are alike in many basic ways, so the unabstracted golden rule works well quite a lot of the time. But a safer, sounder rule would read: Do unto every individual as you imagine you would want to be done unto if you really were that individual. Admittedly, desires conflict, and some people desire what is bad for them, and many people desire their own welfare at the expense of others’ welfare. Still, if the amended rule is imperfect, it is nevertheless more workable than the golden rule -- first, because it acknowledges that people are different, and second, because it provides explicitly for taking the other person’s point of view into account.

Into Other Worlds

In the act of putting oneself in somebody else’s place, it would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of an acrobatic imagination. Frank Chapman Sharp writes in his study called Ethics, "Why, it may be asked, is there so much more egoistic action in the world than altruistic?" His reply:

The answer turns on the cumulative effects of a number of well-known psychological forces. Of these the first in importance is the imagination. Of the many spurs to benevolence this is undoubtedly the most powerful, always excepting the influence of love upon altruism. The effect of any imagined state upon the will tends . . . to be in direct ratio to the concreteness (within certain limits) with which it is pictured. Now I can usually imagine my own future more effectively than the present or future state of another, simply because there are more data at the disposal of the imagination in one case than in the other. Suppose, for example, I am considering the purchase of a hundred-dollar rug. I am, of course, well aware that I might spend that money in helping to feed the starving in the war-ravaged districts of China. But I know precisely how my room looks now with that horrible bare space in the floor; I can easily imagine precisely how it will look covered with a handsome rug, especially if I have seen the rug in a shop window; whereas the sufferings of the Chinese -- well, I have never starved to death [Century Company, 1928, pp. 84-85].

There are ways to develop what is, after all, not very natural behavior in most people: the transcendent act of momentarily becoming someone or something one is not and has never been. Ken McLaughlin (Flicka’s friend) is a fictional example of the imaginative child who can do what Ken calls "getting into another world" at will, a talent which can be practiced:

On his way downstairs he stopped before the picture of the duck. It was a big black duck with white breast and legs and white bars on his wings. He was fierce and handsome standing on his rock, just about to launch himself into the waves of the grey, choppy lake. There was such a reaching in his eager beak and one lifted foot and the forward tilt of his body, Ken felt as if it dragged him in too. In another second he would feel the icy sting and shock of the water, the bitter cold, sharp, up-pricked waves, and the greyness of the misty air hanging over it, full of fear and loneliness. His skin went gooseflesh [My Friend Flicka, by Mary O’Hara (Lippincott, 1941), p. 58].

I’ve worked for several years in the Poets-in-the-Schools programs sponsored by arts councils in three states. A standard ploy in our efforts to loosen up and stimulate the kids’ imaginations is to get them wondering -- like Ken -- how it would feel to be some creature or thing they’re not: steam shovel, garden hose, vacuum cleaner, wild horse, 100-year-old turtle, old man on a park bench. For elementary school children the game is primarily physical, kinetic; but to older children I read my poem "Plaint of the Summer Vampires," which pretends to be a lament voiced by a mosquito and a deerfly. At the end these insects wail together:

O to turn aphid! O

for unresistant leaf-juices and no

murderous mammoth hands whacking! Never to be

tangled again in hair or spotted on your wrist

sipping, and no chance for a getaway.

-- Though you knock ME senseless a dozen times --

-- Or flail me away -- what can we do

but sort our wings and legs and try again

again and yet again? Starve or be slapped to death

is what it comes to. Pity us.

The thirst for blood is a curse [in Poetry, CXXVI

(April 1975), p. 11].

As a way of learning how to take alien points of view, this sort of exercise is excellent, and some children do very fine things with it. Traveling from ducks to insects to people, the "if" method of the Stanislavsky school of acting is also excellent for limbering up one’s imagination to the point where "the sufferings of the Chinese" (or, in our own day, the people of the Sahel) become real to one. The Stanislavsky method, of course, asks "How would I act if I myself were in such-and-such a predicament?" -- the situation rather than the personality is the thing to be imagined. But as a calisthenic it is beautiful, since thinking oneself into some unfamiliar situation as oneself is a step directly toward being able to imagine oneself into somebody else’s skin. The exercise becomes emotional as well as intellectual, which is, of course, very important for its efficacy:

. . . it would be well to learn the nature of the most elementary action, not only in a purely intellectual manner, but also with one’s whole being, by working upon a great mass of experiments and exercises . . . it is necessary, by proceeding from one’s own inner self (and not from a character), to substitute all kinds of "if’s," to ask oneself for instance, what would I do if I had to wait a long time for the train? Or if I found out that I lost my last bit of money, or if I were told that people are waiting for me at the place where I work and I am still at home, still in bed, etc.? ["The Creative Process," by I. Sudakov, in Acting: A Handbook of the Stanislavski Method, compiled by Toby Cole (Crown, 1955), p. 82].

Making the Imaginative Leap

Teachers of the Method advise one not to worry about feeling; go through the motions in a genuine way, they say, and the feeling will come of itself. For us, endeavoring not to perform well on stage but to live well, the questions multiply: "how would I feel if" as much as "what would I do if," or "why would I do what I would do?" How would I feel, and what would I do, and why, if I were (for instance) an Alabama black man? Not everybody can personally undergo what John Howard Griffin did, and wrote about in Black Like Me: take medication to darken the skin, and shave the head, so as to be able to approximate the experience of a black living in the Deep South for seven weeks. Griffin almost knew, briefly, what that was like; the rest of us have to try to acquire the data we lack, put it at the disposal of our imaginations, and let them do the rest.

When the novelist William Styron used his imagination to write The Confessions of Nat Turner, many voices were raised not only in disparagement of his novel but also against his even attempting to make the leap of races and conditions. Yet all fiction writers (and playwrights and filmmakers, for that matter) must make similar imaginative leaps, and will be judged -- as Styron has been judged -- by how convincingly they portray the characters whose points of view they’ve done their best to assume. Readers and viewers value storytelling for its power to let them identify with the common elements of humanity in characters very different from themselves; if they can’t identify, they lose interest fast. In art we expect the imaginative leap to be made for us. In life, though, we have to make our own.

Unless we make it, and make it habitually, we frequently remain mutually mistrustful strangers and even enemies. A vital goal of all movements in quest of social liberation is consciousness-raising, an omnibus term which involves (among other things) making the oppressive factions of society aware of what it’s like to be oppressed. Managers and workers, men and women, straights and gays, whites and nonwhites, "normal" people and "deviants": all the oppressors need a means of understanding emotionally the grievances of the oppressed, and the oppressed groups can benefit, themselves, from a means of understanding the points of view of their oppressors. Henry Kissinger has made a diplomatic career of explaining peoples in conflict to one another; in private life the imagination (emotion) powered by factual information (intellect) could, if exercised assiduously, make simply astonishing headway toward breaking down factionalism, the sense of us and them. Become me; then see how you want to treat me!

And observe straightway the superiority of Habit over Rule! For unlike the golden rule, this habit of imagining assumes that subtle and profound differences exist between individuals, serves to help us become comprehensible to one another despite those differences, and searches for the common humanity that underlies them. If that humanity can be tapped using art as a tool, it can be reached by bare hands digging, too.

Hard-Nosed Judgments

The habit of imagining seems to me a great improvement over the golden rule; however, it’s not after all a panacea. It has been said that to understand all is to forgive all. I doubt it myself; in fact I think I understand some things which should not be forgiven. I do understand why the sight of two homosexuals holding hands at a concert might have turned the stomach of a hardworking, dedicated churchwoman I know who has never in her life committed an act or espoused a position that her family, church, and society at large couldn’t warmly approve; still, it’s hard to forgive a human revulsion that won’t question itself.

While I have, I think, a reasonably good picture of why men in a macho culture felt they needed to keep women down, I deeply resent having learned the concept of "woman’s work" at home and having been treated to lighthearted scoffing about "lady Ph.D.s" in college. No oppressor is justified in vouchsafing his own security and self-respect at the expense of somebody else’s.

Obviously, then, one in the habit of imagining still makes some hard-nosed negative judgments about people’s behavior and beliefs. All the same, whatever self-righteous arrogance one may have had shrivels to a mere vestige of its unimaginative self. Whenever evaluating somebody’s acts or attitudes seems unavoidable, my own rule of thumb is to ask myself whether I could approve of them in myself in the other person’s circumstances. To ask this, I must imagine myself into those circumstances as the other person; to answer it I have recourse only to my values -- but these are grounded in the next, Kantian extension of the imaginative habit: what kind of world would this be if everybody were to behave/react in this manner under the same, possibly mitigating, circumstances?

I see no way out of the circumstantial qualification that doesn’t make life out to be simpler than it is. Suppose you’ve fallen in love with someone who happens to be married to someone else. Should the course you follow be exactly the same regardless of whether (1) you are loved in return, (2) the marriage is a good one, (3) there are children, (4) the children, if any, are small/grown up, (5) the emotional and social consequences for all concerned parties will probably be devastating, (6) you stand a good chance of losing your job if you interfere in the marriage, or (7) you/the wife accidentally becomes pregnant? Probably very few would say Yes automatically anymore. The circumstances may make all the difference in the world.

Even applying the habit of imagining, it’s possible to choose knowingly to cause discomfort. An undergraduate with 16 unruly inches of hair flopping about his shoulders can know, via the imaginative leap, how genuinely disgusted and distressed his parents feel about his appearance. He can also understand why: they grew up poor in an era when looking "respectable" was difficult and highly to be prized, and necessary to an economic security which was by no means assured. But he may decide all the same that his life is his life, and that his parents discomfort will decrease only in direct proportion to the growth of his own. We’ve got the same rights, he may think; if Mom should take a notion to shave her head, it would be none of my business.

"If I were you," we advise each other sagely, "I’d leave him tomorrow." The fresh point of view possible precisely because I am not you may be just the thing for solving a stalemated quandary, but what we ordinarily mean when we say such things is "If I were myself in your place." To advise it may suffice; to understand why you don’t plan to leave him tomorrow, I must mean, "If I were you in your place." If I can manage to be you in your place and retain my own viewpoint as foil at the same time, that should make me a wise and tolerant counselor.

But the complexity of most people’s situations is truly staggering. While the habit of trying to leap swiftly in and out of the moccasins of others is easily formed, where you are after transmigrating can be terribly hard to determine; too much altogether unfamiliar experience may have gone into shaping the person who lives in those moccasins. One must strive always to keep an awareness of this complexity at the surface of one’s mind, and be very slow to condemn.

It takes energy and time to calibrate conscientiously as much as you may need to know about somebody else’s situation in order to decide how best to treat that person, or how to judge him or her justly. And after all that, you still may lack crucial facts; your imagination may leap short. But it’s the closest we can come, I think -- to one another, and to an ethical stance in the world.