THERE IS RARELY A TIME that I hear John Lennon’s song “Imagine” when I don’t get a little choked up and sentimental towards a hopeful world. The anarchic, atheistic, socialistic, rebellious nature of the song has somehow worked its way into the heart of Americana, where even the most pious of listeners will admit they love the song and that somehow it is definitive of some overarching philosophy we should all belong to. And I agree, some of the time. Well, most of the time. Well, almost not at all.
As a writer and musician and teacher, I approach the song for what it’s worth: a radical look at the fabric of society, and how to create a lowest common denominator so that we can, one day, end war and live in relative or actual peace. But aside from that, it’s total nonsense that none of us could actually strive for, although we all think we are.
A few steps toward this understanding:
Nobody Really Believes in Heaven, but yet Almost Everyone Does – To “Imagine there’s no Heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky” is pretty simple unless, like MOST people, you’ve been raised with an idea of Zoroastor’s Hell/Heaven dynamic. Most people want bad people to suffer for their crimes and then be rewarded for their own good doing. Even the most lapsed Catholic isn’t going to give up her idea of some Titantic-ending-like Heaven where Leo welcomes her to the party.
If pressed, people will admit that Heaven is a tricky idea, like Santa’s system of naughty and nice. And any fundamentalists will be a little shy to tell you that they truly believe in a stark Hell/Heaven contrast. Just imagine how hard it is to say, “I believe in Heaven and Hell, and you’re going to Hell; now you want to grab some lunch?” If John wanted us to imagine there was no Judgment, and no Party Hereafter, well, a lot of people take solace in both, and it does make the glory of War a little sweeter. Just ask the Klingons.
Nobody Really Lives For “Today” – I mean, we like to think we do, but most of us are living a month at a time, or not thinking about living at all. We just do it. Or at least we think that we’ll live forever. If not forever, at least until our 70s. And if we did live just for today, that “for today reality” would make us do the things that would jeopardize peace tomorrow, like stealing, lying, killing, cheating, and the worse parts of criminal self-interest. As humans we still do every entire awful thing anyway, because we’re constantly caught between choosing Long-lasting Satisfaction and Immediate Gratification. (Hint, choose the first in most cases).
Nobody Really Wants No Countries – C’mon Lennon! We LOVE boundaries! We love gangs, parties, families, clans, tribes, fraternities, and clubs. We love a good town line. As nice as it sounds, people need a sense of geographical identity, unless they’re Mennonites. Or from Jersey.
Nobody Really Wants Nothing To Die For – Imagine there is nothing to kill or die for? What? John, come on! Humans LOVE to kill and die even for the dumbest shit – shoes, money, honor. These humans are NEVER going to give up dying for anything. I’m a nonviolent pacifist and even I would kill for my kids. Hell, even you died at the hands of some pudgy asshole for no reason. Oh, wait.
Nobody Really Wants No Religion – 330,000,000-plus million gods and 6,000 religions in the world and people are going to give this up? Religion is a way of life, even for non-theists (what would we argue about?). Even the most lapsed Buddhist is going to say “Buddhist” at the hospital when they ask what religion he is. Maybe not. But if there were no religion, we would be all too quick to create it again. We need meaning and purpose (however invented) to fill up our social hierarchical cracks unless we want to admit that we’re just walking protozoa in need of DNA replication and a few giggles before death.
Nobody Really Wants No Possessions – People LOVE their stuff. Even Communists. Even the hippiest of hippies at the most liberal commune love at least one iota of their “stuff.” Even Monks begging in the street value their tunic and bowl. This one is too hard, John. Even eighteen-month-olds are greedy.
Nobody Really Wants A Brotherhood of Man – They just don’t. Not even Fraternity Brothers and real brothers like each other that much. Imagine if you had 3 billion brothers and 3 billion sisters! The holidays would be awful.
Nobody Really Wants A Dreamer – People want cheap food, a couch, and entertainment. And freedom. And hugs. That’s pretty much it, John. And Steve Jobs was not a dreamer. He took a t.v. and typewriter and computer board and marketed a sexy, easy sandwich, essentially.
Nobody Really Wants To Be “One” With The World – Whatever “one” means you can rest assured that less than one out of ten people would want to suffer with someone else and share the awful existence that goes on in the world. Sure we’d like to share the beauty and wonder of existence, but most people only marry one person at a time. Imagine marrying ALL the World! Get it? Imagine? People like to be segregated and think they’re better than other people. Hell, I love alone time, and I’m married with three kids. United People is still a pipe dream. Even among United People you have terrible class structures. And this song is about destroying all class structures.
Nobody Really Wants… Ah, Hell. Nevermind. It Is A Great Song. One day we’ll join you and live as one? I hope so, John (despite what I wrote, and don’t tell anyone – I’m with you. R.I.P.).
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