Ameer Malik: Learning how to imagine

Guest Columnist
Friday, May 25, 2018
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2018

I am a member of Brown’s 250th graduating class. This means I entered Brown in 2014 to those “Imagine Brown 250+” signs, which hung from lampposts and academic buildings all over campus. And I remember thinking: What a lame slogan. What an annoying phrase to see everywhere. It sounded so corny and clichéd. 

These signs are long gone, but I find myself returning  to this idea of imagination during my final year. Perhaps things have come full circle.

This past year, I struggled with a terrible stretch of depression. I’ve dealt with spans of depression throughout much of my life. The most recent one seemed to be exacerbated by the way I saw the state of the world, the geopolitical crises within and outside the United States.

My areas of study sometimes made my depression a bit harder to deal with. It was difficult trying to find ways to feel better when matters such as the history and ramifications of colonialism, the entrenched systems of structural racism in the United States and the persistent violence and brutality throughout human history all weighed on my mind. Thinking about these topics while grappling with the painful aspects of my own personal history made a recipe for deep, emotional pain.

I’m grateful that the worst of this stretch of depression seems to have passed. I’m thankful for all the help I’ve received from my family, my friends, my teachers, my therapist and my psychiatrist.

Also, I’ve gained insight into what I had been going through thanks to amazing, soulful works of art, including Mohsin Hamid’s phenomenal novel “Exit West,” which I read for a fantastic Literary Arts class. Hamid’s book is a powerful magic realist tale about the current migrant crisis. Hamid imagines a world where portals appear out of the blue, allowing people to instantly transport from one location to another. These portals allow for mass migrations, causing national borders to change and new communities to form. The following passage from “Exit West” really struck me and provided an angle through which I was able to view my depression: 

“It has been said that depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself, and … in the whole region, in the Bay Area, and in many other places too, places both near and far, the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge.”

Here, Hamid defines depression as the inability to imagine a preferable future, an apt description of what goes on in my mind when I’m feeling at my worst. At my lowest, I think that there’s no use doing anything, to even try to do anything, since everything is terrible and is only going to get worse. I envision that all the horrible things I’ve faced in my life will continue to happen to me over and over again, and there will be no way out. The way that Hamid connects personal depression to a societal or global fear of catastrophe parallels how I envision, when I feel at my lowest, that all the horrible occurrences throughout the world will persist and get worse.

But Hamid reminds me that the way I experience depression is tied to a problem of imagination. During my time at Brown, I’ve learned how to imagine in better, more useful ways. I learned better ways of imagining in the classroom, when my professors taught me about writers and theorists and workers who have gone against the grain to open up new possibilities for how to be. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, for instance, oppose dominating structures and patterns that limit human beings, such as hierarchies and binaries. The two put forward alternative models for organizing thoughts and actions, models that they see as allowing humans to live more freely. These two are among the many writers and thinkers I’ve learned about who have taught me new ways to imagine the world.

I also learned, from my teachers, friends and peers what it looks like to care about something and to pursue meaningful goals. I’m inspired by those around me who strive to work toward a better world. Furthermore, I learned how to imagine a better future for myself. During a particularly difficult day, I met with a dear friend and told him I could not see what my future looked like. He told me that he could see my future, that he could see me signing his copy of my first published book. He helped me to expand my imagination to allow for a favorable possibility. My friends, through their compassion and kindness, have taught me how to imagine a better future for myself.

Problems in imagination often spell disaster; an inability to imagine an expansive view of the world can lead to intolerance, aggression, animosity and violence. I see a poverty of imagination when I think about exclusionary nationalist movements popping up in the world. I see this constricted worldview when I see the fear mongers on television, convinced that violence and conflict are necessary to defend against what they fear. To me, these patterns all involve an intense cynicism and an inability to picture a brighter future. Perhaps, people might act with less hostility if they imagine more broadly, if their views of the world become more expansive and inclusive. 

This might be the most important thing I’ve learned after my four years at Brown: how to imagine better. Imagine that things might be okay, that things could get better, that striving toward a goal  is worthwhile, that our efforts might not be in vain, that the ways of the world might change for the better. Openness and possibility are the values with which I want to guide my ways of thinking as I move toward whatever lies in my future.