I first wrote about being a parent in law school shortly before my daughter’s second birthday. I was planning her second annual feat of strength. When she was one, she shuffled the last 100 meters up a paved path to the summit of Peter’s Hill. At two, she did a longer stretch of the road that winds around the hill. A few weeks ago, for her third birthday, she climbed straight up the hill, bottom to top, in the snow.
I started explaining the challenge to her the day before and then continued to prep her the morning of. When we started, she was ready, quiet, and about as focused as she gets. We started working our way up. In the middle, she struggled. She asked me to carry her. I told her she had to do this herself. She paused, rallied, and made it to the top. Breathing hard, but with a smile.
I took her for her three-year check-up at the pediatrician a couple of weeks later. The doctor told me, “Imagination is big at three.” She asked, “She imagine a lot?” That would be an understatement. She is constantly narrating her adventure: a highly consequential choice between the blue path and the red path, a search for a purple cow in a yellow valley, an escape from a thieving fox.
After the doctor’s visit, I thought about the relationship between her fanciful default mode and her more grounded and somber walk up the hill. Did she suspend the play of her imagination to get her work done? It’s common to place imagination and accomplishment at odds. But does one necessarily come at the expense of the other?
It certainly feels like imagination is a luxury these days. Our present problems are so entrenched that the scope for creative responses seems limited. If you are going to imagine a solution, think small, otherwise you’re wasting time on the impossible. That conservative incrementalism is also entrenched in law, where drastic change is seen as a kind of systems failure. Learned Hand famously warned against the temptation to “embrace the exhilarating opportunity of anticipating a doctrine which may be in the womb of time, but whose birth is distant.” Law school is not the ideal incubator for imagination.
As a result, big ideas almost always begin outside the legal profession. But lawyers, whether they like it or not, have a crucial role to play as midwives to the future. Law can give ideas a constructive force they would not otherwise have. So lawyers have to exercise their imaginations, specifically their moral imaginations. Jean Paul Lederach, an international peacebuilding expert and practitioner, describes moral imagination in this way:
Moral imagination believes and acts on the basis that the unexpected is possible. It operates with the view that the creative act is always within human potential, but creativity requires moving beyond the parameters of what is visible, what currently exists, or what is taken as given.
Moreover, Lederach insists that in the context of conflict, moral imagination necessarily incorporates grounded realism and even constructive pessimism. Imagination is not an escape from reality. It is a tool for engaging and expanding it.
I realized my daughter had been preparing to summit for months. She was on a non-stop adventure of trials, choices between different paths, and confrontations with antagonistic forces. The obstacles were endlessly variable but she always found a way through. The long, straight shot up the snowy hill may have cut down the narrative possibilities. But imagining the top from the bottom of the hill still required an act of imagination. And she’d been practicing.
She still is. After we rested at the top, we started our walk back to the car. We passed a massive bolder lodged in the side of a hill. She pointed at it and warned me, “Look out for the earth giants!” I said “Oh no!” I asked her what we were going to do. “Don’t worry,” she reassured me. Then she explained how to take on giants.
Ian Ramsey-North is a second-year student at BC Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.