Gone seem the hours spent fighting mythical dragons and dancing lead for royalty in packed arenas; chasing gold at the end of rainbows and of course, digging epic tunnels through the center of the Earth to China. Childhood itself was an adventure only limited by imagination. Fantasy trophies, defeated adversaries, supreme feats of strength and prowess: these are the foundations of our initial search for understanding of the world and our role in it.
Imagination has deep roots in psychology and philosophy—yet as adults we don’t throw ourselves into these daydreams and fantasy role play as we once did, perhaps to our own detriment.
I often question what happens in our lives that causes us to lose our wonder? Can it be pinpointed to a certain heartbreak in our youth: a singular moment when life tore apart our belief of possibility from our perception of reality? Immediately I think of Santa Claus, for many the debunking of this myth is their first jarring experience of the loss of magic. I remember the years I agonizingly held to the desire to believe in Santa.
Pragmatically I knew the truth, but to relinquish the hope for mystical kindness and love for all the children of the world ripped my heart out. I rode the fence longer than anyone should admit. However, for me this was not the event that caused me to stop daydreaming. Perhaps, it was a culmination of failures that taught me to aim lower than the stars, or worse yet—those years in college when I thought being cynical made me appear complicated and mature.
Who knows? Regardless, losing our commitment to our imagination is a journey that most of us stumble through at some point of our adulthood.
This is not to say imagination is dead. Quite the opposite. I catch myself daydreaming all the time, providing temporary happiness in the thick of difficult tasks or tedious chores. Our imagination strengthens our creative abilities, which can encompass anything from interior design, playing music, planning a trip, or preparing for a business meeting.
In fact, imagination plays a crucial role in achievement of success in any field. In his book, “Hypersanity, Thinking Beyond Thinking” Dr. Neal Burton describes imagination as the highest form of thought and almost divine in its reach, “It can open up the realms of the abstract, the figurative, the possible, the hypothetical, and the paradigmatic and universal.” (2019).
The issue as we get on in years is that the divide between imagination and belief becomes too wide to cross in our narrowing perspectives. Fiction and reality should inform and enrich the other, opening our minds to the powerful phrase of what if.
It is this phrase, what if, that exalted us as heroes in our childhood storylines. What if I could jump high enough to touch a cloud, to fly? Pure joy thrummed through my limbs as I would chase what if and swing ever higher to defy gravity on the swing set.
Every day I would return home the exhausted champion who conquered what others deemed impossible. I could talk to animals, find hidden treasures, become invisible, or dig a tunnel to China all because of what if. I truly believed that if anyone could do these things, it was me.
Fast forward 20 years in the timeline of my life, what if appeared again when I realized I was in love. What if he was the one? What if we had amazing adventures together and made a happy home? What if the child I carried would carry the perfect combination of our best traits, grew up healthy, and bold enough to chase their own happiness? Even now, what if I live a life worthy? It brings a smile to my lips just saying it. The possibilities ignite a fire within me.
Most importantly, our imagination—playing out scenarios and extending ourselves beyond our limited experiences—allows us to look at any situation from a different point of view. Our imagination is the core of our empathy and sympathy for others, and in this seemingly polarized society we live in, paramount.
To imagine ourselves carrying the weight of our neighbors’ burdens makes it easier to see why they fight for certain rights or value cherished luxuries. All life’s glory is in the eye of the beholder, to imagine the view from another’s perspective is a practice in compassion and humanity. It’s difficult to judge a person blindly when you see them with an open heart. Republican or Democrat, religious or atheist, wealthy or poor; these are labels which squash our creative ability to see each other clearly.
The power of imagination opens up alternatives and possibilities that guide our decisions. Greatness achieved and blundered stems originally from our mind’s initial conception. From the Eiffel Tower to peanut butter, innovative cancer treatments and reconciled relationships; we have always and will always only be limited by what possibilities we can conceive.