Summer is a season of magic. The old sticks littering the backyard are actually swords, the woods are full of dragons, and the water at the beach has the power to turn a young girl into a mermaid. Campfires flicker with dancing fairies whose blazing arms reach up to snatch the edges of marshmallows.
Or, at least, so it is for children. At some point in adolescence, the life of the imagination becomes an embarrassment, a thing to hide away and rarely, if ever, revisit. “Fantasy” for the adult comes to mean childish escapism or, at its worst, interior pornography.
Yet, the imagination is a part of our being made “in the image and likeness of God.” It is the divine imagination that gives rise to all creation: For a thing to be, it must first be imagined by God. The human imagination is a pale imitation of this, but even a pale imitation of the power that makes wormholes and geraniums is a significant thing.
Like all human faculties, this one is indispensable for living a full life. It was Albert Einstein who said that imagination is “more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
There is also an extraordinary relationship between the imagination and memory. The classical “arts of memory,” which were widely practiced by the medieval scholastics and endorsed as an element of prudence by St. Thomas Aquinas, relied on this relationship in order to achieve fantastic mnemonic feats.
There are more practical applications as well. The salesperson or entrepreneur is encouraged to “think positively,” to imagine himself selling and succeeding. The New Age explanation for this is that the power of positive thinking will cause the universe to align with your desires. In reality, the technique works because fantasy is able to change the inscape of the person: If you are able to clearly visualize yourself as a success, you will face obstacles and challenges with confidence. You will slowly start to conform yourself to your fantasy.
I did something similar when I was preparing for a home birth with my fifth child. I imagined myself successfully navigating all the problems that could arise, imagined the internal processes of labor, imagined myself facing pain with strength, and so on. Barbara was born in less than an hour, and I never hit that point where I wanted to curse God and die.
When an event is positively rehearsed in the mind, the soul gains courage. You feel prepared, as though you have already faced certain challenges and overcome them. More than this, the imagination has the capacity to change the way we perceive and process the world. The obvious example is in human relationships. If you imagine that a particular girl is the most beautiful woman in the world, that she is possessed of every possible virtue, you will perceive those parts of her behavior that corroborate this theory. You will take visual snapshots of her face only when the light is hitting it perfectly and at exactly the right angle. On the other hand, if you are plagued by fearful fantasies in which your son is an incompetent failure, you will probably notice every one of his imperfections and overlook his good qualities.
Like any faculty, the imagination grows in strength the more it is used and atrophies if it is neglected. A complaint I often hear from other mothers and from teachers is that children today “have no imagination.” Whether this is true or not, there are several elements of the modern mental landscape that impede the development of the imagination.
The most obvious is television, which is both a blessing and curse to the development of the imagination. On the one hand, the person who exercises the imagination outside of media consumption will find a great deal to pillage in the wealth of images that are available through the visual media. The imagination is not capable of the sort of absolute creativity that is found only in the mind of God. Just as a human builder must always work with materials taken from the created world, the human imagination must always start with sensations received from outside. Film provides the viewer with images from around the world, from deep caverns, from alien cultural contexts and even from outer space. It allows us to have a vicarious experience of things we could never see in person.
On the other hand, the visual media can take the place of the imaginary life. Ready-made images are provided, already perfected, polished and inserted into a narrative structure that is more sophisticated than an untrained imagination can produce for itself. Especially among small children, this can lead to a state of media dependence. The imagination simply consumes the images as they are offered and never learns to create worlds of its own.
Education, likewise, has the capacity either to inspire or to cripple the imagination. Creative work in schools (creative writing, drawing, painting, expressive dance and drama) can provide a good foundation for the imagination — provided the instruction gives enough leeway for individual and virtuous expression. Where education places too high a premium on the so-called “practical” disciplines, on areas where success can be easily standardized and tested and on skills that are useful in a very restricted work environment, then the imagination becomes cramped. This is especially a risk when very young children are not given sufficient unstructured time for play.
Next time, we’ll look at the role of the imagination in the spiritual life.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.