By John English
Imagination is a quality generally associated with children, and with creative people like musicians or artists or writers. I think I can safely say that all the great works of art I can think of began as thoughts or concepts in someone’s head – Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.
And anyone who has spent time with small children knows that their lives are rich in imagination – imaginary friends, blanket forts in the living room, pretend dress-up characters, and tea parties with bunnies and bears.
I’ve often heard it said that imagination ends with childhood. But I don’t think you have to be an artistic genius or a child to exercise imagination. There are many ways I use my imagination in everyday life. Planning my day involves looking ahead and visualizing how to go about each task I set for myself. As I read, I imagine the characters and their surroundings in my mind’s eye. As I drive in the city, I imagine the best route to take to get from point A to point B. As I am preparing a meal, I imagine what ingredients will go together to make for a satisfying result. I take my imagination for granted, exercising it without actually recognizing its impact in my daily existence.
But a recent conversation with a friend caused me to think about a deeper application of the imagination. We were talking about some of the dire and tragic conditions present in the world - hunger, war, poverty, political unrest, bigotry - and it struck me that so many of the world’s problems stem from a lack of imagination. I wondered if less time were spent in trying to push particular political agendas, dogmas or systems for personal or “tribal” gain, and more time were spent in imagining how the world could be different, could we in fact see a world of tolerance, acceptance and peace?
This deeper and more profound imaginative experience begins with me, in my own head. Can I imagine how it feels to be impoverished, to be at war, to be homeless, to be peripheral or disenfranchised? Can I, by using my imagination, place myself in the shoes of “the other” – the immigrant, new to this country, who is seeking a better, more secure life; the single parent struggling to provide for their children; the young person who simply wants to be accepted for who they are. There is so much pain in the world. Can we imagine ourselves as experiencing that pain, and can we imagine a world without it? Can we imagine solutions that result in human dignity, in loving and caring communities, in safety and security and happiness for every person?
At the beginning of this New Year, a time when we make resolutions and commit to changes big and small, let us spend a bit of time imagining a better self, a better community and a better world. As Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”