I’m a big fan of imagination. I agree with Einstein and others that imagination is an untapped power that can be used for so much good. With imagination, we plan a future that excites us, we get ourselves out of difficult situations, imagine life beyond grief, and even think about meaning and purpose and giant questions like death and the beyond.
Imagination can be a lifesaver. If you feel like you’re drowning in challenges, imagination builds a ladder that helps you see above the fray to new and creative solutions. Imagination is limitless and much larger than any challenge. If you feel buried in problems, imagination visualizes the surface where you can breathe again. And imagination is wiser than advice. Imagination shows rather than telling, empowering rather than forcing. If you can see it, you can solve it. It just becomes a matter of will.
Oscar Wilde said, “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
Imagination helps us consider the possibilities beyond our current life. But what about when imagination slips into fantasy? Doesn’t there come a time when living beyond your means is craziness? Imagination is not ALL good, and not all the time. Honestly, I never thought about it like this before. So I want to play with the boundaries between imagination and fantasy.
Imagination and Anxiety
Anxiety uses imagination to picture something you don’t want, just as vision uses imagination to picture something you DO want. Either way, you tend to get what you focus on. So be careful what seeds your imagination plants.
There seems to be parts of the brain that have no way of distinguishing between what is real and what is imagined. Anyone who screams out loud in a horror movie or sobs inconsolably in a Hollywood tear jerker knows the truth of this. When I watched Tom Hanks dealing with shock in the movie Captain Phillips, I was SO there with him. It was as if I was going through it. That’s powerful imagination.
We sometimes feel real emotions like fear and trauma and anxiety about things that are not real and may never be real.
FEAR is often false evidence appearing real, aka fantasy, a fabrication of misguided imagination.
There is a parable about a man who wakes up in the middle of the night to find a poisonous snake coiled next to his leg at the foot of his bed. He lies awake all night, frozen in terror, praying that the snake won’t bite him. As dawn breaks, and light begins to shine on his bed, he finally realizes that it’s not a snake at all. It’s a belt he forgot to put away when he went to bed. Once he knows the truth, the snake disappears, the fear is gone and he is filled with relief.
Until he had seen the light, so to speak, his imagination got the better of him and he imagined his own demise. When you shine a light on fear’s fantasy, you reveal it for the fraud that it is.
Be mindful of your imagination. Use it in ways that serves you and others. Give enough focus to fear’s fantasy, and your brain will think this is real. Focus instead on things that excite and energize you and your brain and choices will join forces with imagination to start making this real.
Fantasy and Control
Unfortunately, too many institutions play on our tendency to fantasize. Let me illustrate with a fun little story.
Their daughter thought she was a chicken, so the parents took her to the doctor. “Doctor”, they said, “Our daughter thinks she’s a chicken.”
The doctor told them not to worry, reminding them that overactive imaginations are not uncommon in children. She then asked them how long this had been going on.
“Almost two years,” said the mother.
“Your daughter has imagined she is a chicken for nearly two years.So why have you waited so long before bringing her in?”
The mother looked embarrassed, then confessed: “We needed the eggs, doctor.”
Religion, politics, the media, business, education, health, litigation, insurance etc etc. They all use fear and scarcity to some extent to control us with fantasy, like the image of people dangling over hell’s hot coals or the political spin of Armageddon if the “other” party gets its way or the threat that if we don’t buy their product we will be miserable. The crazy thing is that we buy right into it. They need us to need them, and part of us needs to be needed too.
We give up our power over fear and fantasy. This is the abuse of imagination. Don’t fall for it.
Imagination is not carte blanche for fantasy’s folly. Test everything. Imagination needs to be plausible, even if ambitious and visionary. If something scares you, but there’s no evidence for it (like hell, poltergeists, the end of the world, or old wive’s tales about swimming after eating) then don’t buy into it.
You always retain the freedom to test claims and choose your beliefs. When I take off in an airplane, the thought of tragedy often passes through my mind, with imagination telling awful stories about mangled crashes in mountains. But when I test this idea, I remind myself that the chance of an accident is so slim, it’s not even worth thinking about. So I dismiss the thought.
We take calculated risks all the time, no matter what our imaginations (or any of the institutions that try and control us) say.
Fantasy and Imagination- Telling the Difference
There is an often subtle, but important, distinction between fantasy and imagination. But what is it?
Our kids have had at least part of their education in a Montessori system. I’ve learnt a lot from my small understanding of Maria Montessori, including this distinction between imagination and fantasy. Legend has it that Maria began telling kindergarten aged children fairy tales but they quickly lost interest because they were far more interested in playing. There was more to imagine in concrete materials in nature and the classroom to keep them interested. She found that older elementary aged children and adolescents were more interested in fairy tales.
This was a huge aha moment for me. Imagination is based in reality. Fantasy is not. In dreams and science fiction and vision boards, we take ordinary elements of the real world and do creative things with them. This is an effective use of imagination. Fantasy tries to make things up out of thin air.
Imagination is liberating and ambitiously attainable. Fantasy is limiting and out of reach. Imagination stretches the boundaries of knowledge IN the world. Fantasy dangles you out of this world.
There is a place for fantasy; as an escape in a movie, or for an adolescent playing with identity and the role of magic in the world. As Dr Seuss said, “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” But even here I suspect he is talking more about imagination than fantasy. For adults, I would like to see a LOT more imagination and a little less fantasy.
That’s how I see it now anyway. Maybe it’s just a semantic distinction, and I’m open to seeing this in a different way. But for now, it seems to me that imagination is an important form of knowledge. Fantasy is an escape from reality. I like the idea of uniting imagination with reason, and ethics, and memory and common sense and more, as part of a whole creative form of possibility thinking. And I did find at least one person who agrees with this perspective. Francisco Goya, 18th century Spanish artist, said
Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.