To imagine actively, creating, expressing, dreaming and playing
To see the invisible
Imagination allows us to see the invisible. Saint-Exupery’s fox tells the Little Prince, “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”. We know that, don’t we? Love, passion, purpose, happiness, enlightenment……all experiences we have, all experiences that are important to us, but none of which can be seen, known or experienced by another, except by using our imaginations. Ian McEwan, the author, wrote after 9/11 that the biggest failure of the terrorists was a failure of imagination. If they could have imagined the lives of the people on the planes, and their families on the ground, they couldn’t, he argued, have committed their heinous crimes. I’ve always remembered reading that. I thought it was incredibly powerful and it’s true. Compassion emerges when we combine love with imagination. I’ll return to that in another post, but the important point for now, is that without imagination we cannot “see” what someone else is experiencing. Without imagination, compassion just wouldn’t exist.
We mustn’t mistake the invisible for the unreal however. There’s nothing unreal about love, or any of our subjective experiences. They are real, as real as physical objects. There’s a very common failure in contemporary societies which regards only the physical as real, or only the physical as important. It leads to that criticism of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. It leads to a distorted view of science which dismisses subjective, first person experience as, at best, a bias, and, at worst an irrelevance. That’s a failure of imagination. However, complexity science concepts such as emergence are beginning to address that failing.
To see the possible
Imagination allows us to see the possible. Human beings are great at invention, at problem-solving, at making things. All of these abilities stem from the imagination. Everything human beings make begin in the imagination. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a chair, or an aircraft carrier, a mug or a spaceship, none of them would exist had someone not imagined them first. If nobody can see the possible, then the possible doesn’t come into existence. We are creators. You could argue that the real Truth revealed in the claim that we are made in God’s image, is that we are creators. We ceaselessly create, continuously solving problems, inventing, making objects, expressing ourselves through stories and through art. If you stop to think about it, you’ll realise that there aren’t two kinds of people – those who are creative and those who are not. We are all creative. It’s an inescapable part of our make-up. The differences come in what we choose to do with that creativity and how we choose to manifest it.
Is it possible to achieve anything in life without having goals? And what are goals other than our imaging the possible? How do we grow without imagination? How could we change anything about lives without imagination?
To see the impossible
Imagination allows us to something else pretty amazing. It not only allows us to see the invisible and to make the possible probable, but it allows us to envisage the impossible too. In magic, fantasy and science fiction, we encounter the impossible and take it on board as if it were real. We can immerse ourselves in such stories and change our perspectives so that the boundaries between the possible and the impossible shift. Before the invention of aeroplanes, for example, anyone who imagined human beings could fly was imagining the impossible. Without imagination, this would never have turned into the possible, and further from the possible into the actual.
How imagination changes the world
Look at this -
The surrealists were masters at provoking us to think about reality. Here, Magrite doesn’t just make us stop and think, “Well if it isn’t a pipe what is it? Oh, a drawing of a pipe!” He gives us the experience of creating reality through representation. He teaches us something profoundly important about the creative nature of perception and reality. We have a fabulous ability to create symbols and metaphors, both of which would be impossible without the imagination. This ability profoundly enriches our lives. It changes, what Robert Solomon would call a “thin” experience into a “thick” one. Here’s an example. Imagine someone buys a pottery mug. It’s just a mug. Maybe they associate the colour or the shape of it with some other mug they once handled, but maybe not. However, if this particular mug is a gift given to his loved one, and if later they sit together happily drinking from this very mug, lovingly sharing the one cup, then, at some other time, the person who bought the mug finds that it isn’t just a mug anymore. He can imagine his lover’s lips parting as she drinks from it. He can imagine her delicate fingers and her soft hands as she cups them around it. He now experiences that very same mug quite differently. In fact, using his imagination he can even do that when the actual mug is nowhere to be seen, just by calling it up in his mind.
Our living with objects, our experiencing and sharing the world with others, involves our imagination. Our imagination enables us to see the invisible connections. John Berger describes this beautifully by giving the example of the constellations. He says we look up at the stars scattered apparently randomly over the night sky and see invisible lines connecting some of them to each other to make constellations. The invisible lines are created and revealed through stories. We learn the stories of the stars and that allows us to name the constellations.
We change the world through the stories we create about it.
The danger of imagination
Imagination is a bit like passion. It’s a good thing, but not always. There’s a paradox in imagination, just like there’s a paradox in passion. Our imagination allows us to imagine death, disease, and all kinds of threats and dangers. Sometimes our minds get stuck on what we’ve been imagining, so that death, or cancer, or being robbed, or whatever, becomes the most important possibility in our lives and we make all of our choices in the light of that. This can really limit our lives. We can become paralysed by the fear which is the consequence of what we imagine.
And there’s another way in which imagination can be dangerous. Too much imagination can detach us from the real world. Mental illnesses which involve hallucinations and delusions, psychotic illnesses, are distressing and dangerous not only to the person who is suffering, but potentially to others too. We treat, by suppression, the diseases of the imagination. Of course, whether or not they are actually diseases, depends on a cultural, a social understanding. In some cultures a particular experience might be described as a spiritual one, whilst in another it would be interpreted as a sign of disease. Within the particular cultural contexts however too much imagination, or particular uses of the imagination can produce suffering.
How can you improve your faculty of imagination to become more creative, and to experience a richer life? Through play, through art and through stories. Think of the rich imaginative world of children and how that is both manifested and nurtured through encouraging creative play. Childhood doesn’t last very long, and one of the forces which brings it to an end is anti-play. We insist that they become more serious, taking that as a sign of maturity. We replace play with work and responsibilities. In so doing, there’s a danger we inhibit the development of the imagination.
Art, in all its forms, is a way of activating and nurturing the imagination. Both the experience of art, and the creation of art. Experiencing art can profoundly provoke the imagination, whether we are looking at a painting in a gallery, listening to a performance in a concert or witnessing a play or an opera.
We create a sense of self through the stories we tell ourselves and others. Stories can provoke our imaginations and help us to not only have a rich, meaning-full life, but which can change the reality of our world.
In all their forms, play, art and stories, can stimulate and develop our ability to imagine, and consequently, to develop our capacity to see the invisible, the possible and even the impossible.
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