The Importance of Imagination

I sometimes run across someone who has learned to stop imagining and letting themselves imagining. I have to believe that these people once had an active imagination and as a child behaved like most of us. Remember what it was like when you were a kid? Remember when you believed in everything?

I have a distinct memory of wanting to grow up to be a shark. This was the 70s, if course, when “Jaws” was the most popular movie and book around. I was fascinated with sharks and whales. People kept telling me that I could grow up to be whatever I wanted. I thought that was very literal and so, I decided I wanted to grow up to be a shark. In my little head this seemed perfectly reasonable. Just about everything seemed perfectly reasonable and all of the details didn’t need to be worked out?

So, a guy in a red suit flies around the world in one night, somehow breaks into your house and leaves you presents? Sure, no problem. A giant rabbit then breaks into your house and, for some reason totally unrelated to rabbits, leaves hard-boiled eggs that I had colors myself a few days earlier all around the house? Ok, sure, I’ll buy into that.

It was the same with all of the games we played as kids. For some reason, when I was growing up, I became a kind of “director” for the various games we would play. We played ultra-realistic games. We would play games based on movies and things like that. I would sort of direct the scenes. Did they often make any sense at all? Well, no, of course not.

I have to imagine all kids go through this phase. They all have a time when they believe in everything and don’t need an explanation for everything. I think it’s important to keep a part of that with you as you grow up, however. I feel profoundly sad when I run across someone who cannot watch a science fiction novel, or a fantasy movie like “Lord of the Rings” and enjoy the story. I have one friend who doesn’t like those movies just because he doesn’t like them as movies. That’s not what I mean. At least he is willing to buy into the story. I have a couple of friends who would not even go that far. Yeah, the movie was OK, but I just can’t believe in wizards and hobbits and orcs. Not even for a few hours to watch a movie?

See, movies, to me, are where you are supposed to get away from reality. If you watch movies just to watch reality well, you might as well as stay home and watch the news or open the window and watch through that all day. The point of movies is just to let yourself go and forget reality for a while.

I don’t believe that there are aliens flying around abducting farmers from Kansas to probe them anally and then eviscerate their cows. I don’t believe they fly around making fancy designs in corn fields. However, if you give me a movie where that is the premise, then I am willing to suspend my disbelief and get lost in the movie. If the movie or story is told well enough them I am willing to enjoy it despite the aliens. Again, this is the point of fiction.

What happens to these people? What makes them decide to stop believing that aliens can come down and interact with us today even in a work of fiction? Why can’t they let themselves believe that there is a Middle Earth where these strange creatures live and die and fight and look for rings with great power?

I think the world does everything it can to beat and pound imagination out of people. Living in your imagination is not supposed to be something that is practical. You are supposed to think logically, in terms of numbers, and you are supposed to settle down into a life of cubicles and steady employment. People who spend too much time in their imagination are never as easily employable. They let themselves imagine what might be better outside the gray cubicle walls. They break rules. They try to bend rules when they can’t break them. They are often perceived as “flaky.”

At some point I think the imagination is pounded out of kids and they are told they need to stop believing in fat men in red suits and fairies who take teeth and giant breaking and entering rabbits. It is my hope that more of them keep some part of that inside themselves and keeps their imagination active. They can do it secretly.

I hope that more people allow themselves to imagine. Write a poem or a short story. Write a song. Paint something. Sculpt something. Act in a play. I think these things should be done even if just for yourself. Just to keep that part of yourself active. If you let it sit there, unused, it’s like a muscle that atrophies and dies.

Imagine if Stephen Speilberg had decided to just settle down. There would never have been an “E.T.” or “Close Encounters” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Maybe he would have made movies about accountants or something if he made movies at all. He might just be a guy working in an office somewhere. If there was no imagination there would be nothing but documentaries. I like a good documentary but I definitely don’t want to watch just that. I want the occasional stupid movie like “The Last Boy Scout.” Nothing remotely believable in that movie and yet I enjoy it ever time.

It’s our imagination that sets us apart from each other and from animals. I really think the imagination is the showing of a person’s soul. Our ability to think beyond what we are and imagine a place where we are something more than we are is what makes us strive for something more. If we can dream it, maybe it can be true and maybe humanity will become something better if we can find some way to get closer to the impossible.

So, imagine yourself as a shark. Who knows, maybe you’ll grow a fin and some gills. At the very least, it will make talking to your boss about a raise the next time a lot more interesting if you have row upon row of teeth.

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