The Imagination Question

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In dedication to Joseph Brolly.

My nephew’s imagination astounds me. I’ve seen him turn cushions into cows, the shower into a barn and his baby brother into a bag of turf (it’s pretty obvious what this kid wants to be when he grows up). We play regularly but I have recently found myself stumped, almost embarrassed, by his level of creativity as a three year old.  Every game we play or scenario we fabricate is all down to my nephew and his imagination.  He sometimes asks, “Becky what can we play?” and to this question, I rarely have an original answer. If it’s not a preconceived game – jigsaws, tig, hide and seek – i’ve got nothing.  It seems his aspirations are already greater than mine.  He sees every day tools as tools to play out his imagination.  What we might use as a hairbrush or a spoon, he can conjure up something much more magical.  He sees the extraordinary in the ordinary.

This got me thinking: where did my imagination go? Surely, I had one once.  I can recall as a youngster running a chip shop with only lego and newspaper and saying Mass using my granny’s tea set and smarties.  It seems we are all born with the ability to be imaginative but at some point this capacity begins to slip away from us.  Do imaginations come with expiration dates; are they meant to last a certain amount of time and then fade away into obscurity as we grow older? Or is it a case of “use it or lose it”? 

“Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination.  But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.” – Walt Disney

It would appear that, just like any other skill, we must learn to foster our imaginations.  They can not be tossed to one side, unused, and picked up at a later date.  The problem with this is that it becomes the social norm to remove ourselves from our more imaginative tendencies as we begin to mature.  Obviously, there comes a point when building forts and befriending imaginary people aren’t conducive to real life.  At some stage, we all have to grow up. We are encouraged to keep our head out of the clouds and our feet on the ground, and rightly so, or who knows where we’d end up.  But does something special get lost in this process?

I recently read a piece from a fellow blogger on the perils of the imagination, taking the view that some of us are either blighted to have one or blessed to be without.  Those “unlucky” enough to have been cursed with one, spend most their lives in pursuit of perfection, desiring the unattainable.  They are doomed to a life of falseness and disappointment.  Perhaps, it’s a classic case of “the grass is always greener on the other side.”  What you have, you don’t want and vice versa. Interestingly though, many in the comment section of her blog stated that they daren’t trade in their imaginations for the world. 

Admittedly, the improper use of our imaginations can, on occasion, serve to undermine us. Consider the proverbial daydreamer.  They spend more time dreaming than doing and in the end can never fulfill their wildest imaginings as they are too busy well, imagining.  Similarly, if our imagination can lead us to places centred on notions of progression and goodness, it also has the potential to lead us down darker paths.  Ultimately, though I believe the world would be much worse off in its absence than in its abundance. 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

Some of life’s greatest achievers – Einstein, Disney, Picasso, Wilde, Newton – were all advocates of the imagination. While knowledge teaches us ‘what is’, the imagination reveals to us ‘what might be’.  Relying on our own knowledge can, therefore, only take us so far; we must allude to something greater in order to create greatness.  Take even just a peak back at history: any discovery, invention, or work of art were all borne of someone’s imagination.

The problem with so many of us is that we lack imagination.  I include myself in this.  We find ourselves bored and yet have more to occupy us than ever before. We have no idea what do with our lives because we find it difficult to conceive ideas beyond the “normal” or “practical”. We’re taught to make decisions rationally, to measure the pros and cons.  And while i’m not advocating abandoning reason, there is little encouragement to consider the more daring, adventurous routes in life – the routes that actually mean something to us.

If we don’t imagine or dare to dream, then what does our future hold?  Complacency? Stagnancy? Boredom?  The question is then, can we reacquaint ourselves with our once so active imaginations? While children have a lot to learn from their elders, it seems to me, we have a lot to learn from them.

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8 thoughts on “The Imagination Question

  1. Thanks for the reference to me! Liked your post!

    I know, watching children makes us realize that we leave imagination behind as we grow older (I’ve also been writing about my nephew quite a bit recently). I especially like the last bit here where you point to a sort of practical usefulness of imagination for individuals to provide us with a reason to continue on in life. Pleasure to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My mother used to say: ‘Don’t keep your wishbone where your backbone ought to be.’ As a child, my imagination was what got me into trouble and also gained praise. As an adult, I see it as a really useful tool, to be used when appropriate. This, I find, is at the outset of a project or at the nitty-gritty moment of problem-solving. I’ve worked a sculptor and a research scientist and now a writer, none of these would have been possible without imagination… but yes, it can still get me into trouble.

    Liked by 1 person

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