One of the key concepts in John Lennon’s thought is that every individual represents a singularity of potential, each of whom is capable of influencing others, and the ripple effect can change society. This view lies at the heart of his song Instant Karma with its chorus of “We all shine on.” Tailoring the Hindu concept of karma to the here-and-now, he asserts that the cosmic laws of balance and retribution also apply in our current lives. If we approach the world as violent, self-gratifying or inconsiderate people, what reaction will we generate? If enough of us decide to be the same way, what kind of society will we have? We therefore need to be mindful of our actions and attitudes and their consequences.
In another of his key concepts, we also need to be mindful of our imagination and its potential. Lennon took note as sports and business figures began to use creative visualization to improve their real-life performance. Could we not use collective visualization to improve the world? What if, instead of everyone focusing their attention on the bugaboo of the day – the Communist menace, the slide toward an Orwellian future, the looming threat of a nuclear holocaust – they instead visualized a peaceful society, characterized by nonviolence and harmonious relations?
To that end he wrote Mind Games, to encourage listeners to become ‘mind guerrillas’, working independently but in concert to visualize and bring about a better society. He referred to the focus of the project as an ‘absolute elsewhere’ – an ideal world imagined so vividly that people would start altering their behavior, perhaps even subconsciously, to make it manifest.
Lennon’s most famous song had a similar aim. Imagine takes on three of the most divisive issues of humankind – religion, nationalism and possessiveness and gently invites us to look at them from a neutral perspective.
What if we accept that neither Heaven nor Hell exist, and that God is simply the name for a naturally-occurring background force in the universe? Without the prospect of Heaven or Hell we would have no expectation of reward or punishment after death. Would we suddenly descend to barbarism, looting, mayhem in the streets? Possibly. More likely we would simply focus better on our existence here and now, being keenly aware of our transience and the wisdom of trying to live a full life.
What if we stopped defining ourselves by imaginary lines running across the terrain? (Or at least began to think of demarcations of nations the way we think of postal districts?) What if, instead of considering ourselves patriots of a nation, we thought of ourselves first – like the great Cynic, Diogenes – as citizens of the world? Would we find it more difficult to distrust, berate and even mercilessly slaughter fellow citizens than we would foreigners?
What if we accomplished the hardest transformation of all and overcame our possessiveness? Notice that Lennon says imagining no Heaven is “easy if you try” and imagining no countries “isn’t hard to do,” but as for imagining no possessions, “I wonder if you can.” Wouldn’t much of the world’s misery vanish if we could simply begin to do what we encourage our children to do? To share?
The ideal world Lennon envisioned in 1971 was not something he expected to see in place the next year. Its purpose was to serve as an alternative destination to the one toward which our culture seemed to be rushing headlong in the heyday of Nixon, Brezhnev, Mao, the hot war in Southeast Asia and the Cold War everywhere else – i.e., Apocalypse 2000. His aural sketch represented what Richard Rorty calls “a fuzzy but inspiring focus imaginarius”; that is, “a handy bit of rhetoric” that might not hold up under analysis but nevertheless benefits society for having “kept the way open for political and cultural change.”
Imagine crystalizes Lennon’s philosophy. In it he reached hardest for the universal and consciously tried to communicate a vision that would inspire everyone everywhere – from a sales clerk in Tokyo to a mechanic in Warsaw to a florist in Prague to a street musician in Barcelona to a teacher in Havana.
In the better world Lennon proposed, people would forgo violence and act out of love and mutual respect. They would recognize that such traditional classifiers as religion, nationality and skin color are meaningless from a cosmic perspective and that any person should be treated simply as a fellow human being. Further, they would be content to share material wealth and the earth’s resources in the interest of having a milieu of social harmony within which to explore the potential of their own lives. For Lennon placed emphasis on the here-and-now – on how we can best use the quantum of time chance has allotted to us; on what we can achieve as individuals and societies while we are still alive.
He conceived of life as a work of art, and the metaphor applies for any of us. Some have more resources and advantages, some fewer, but each of us has the liberty to use them however we decide. An interviewer once commented: “You say everybody is equal, but some people are more equal than others.” Lennon replied: “But they are all infinite. They all have infinite possibilities, my friend.”