I grew up believing that imagination belonged to children and artists. Children had imaginary friends and monsters under the bed. Artists made up stories and pictures and songs (different kinds of imaginary friends and monsters, perhaps?). For the rest of us, though, as Frank Sinatra sings it, “Imagination is funny” or “crazy” or “silly,” certainly not the province of serious adults!
I want to reclaim imagination for the rank and file of us. Let’s hone it if it’s a skill. Exercise it if it’s a muscle. Explore it and experiment with it. Practice it till it’s a habit. Yes, it’s a way of seeing what does not exist, but it’s also a way of trying to see what could exist. What can a “new” normal look like? How might we get out of political stalemate? How do we save the planet? How can we see beyond our sharp and often hateful differences?
It may also be uniquely useful and important in revealing what others see that we don’t. In teaching and writing history, I’ve found that imagination – way more than memorization! – goes a long ways to helping me understand people in other times and places. I learn what I can about them, then imagine standing behind one of them (and then another) wondering what is it that she sees when she looks at her life? What does he feel, fear, hope for? What obstacles loom and what opportunities beckon? What choices offer themselves? Of course, I can’t know, but the act of imagining opens me up to differences, softens my certainty about my own view and demonstrates its particularity. It reminds me, too, how much I don’t yet know.
The late John O’Donohue calls imagination the Path of the Spirit. I call it the way of hope.