Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Once upon a time, John Lennon asked us to imagine. Poets, songwriters, authors often ask people to imagine, drawing people into another world that could be, whether good or bad. But, do we take this ability for granted? Have you ever stopped to think about what the world would be like if we couldn’t imagine? As much as we love them, I’m pretty sure dogs, cats and horses can’t use their imaginations. If imagination is special just to humans, are we squandering this gift?
I imagine therefore I write?
A few years ago, I was at a first birthday party for my friend’s son. She threw it at her childhood home, where her parents still lived. All of her family came and I saw her parents for the first time in many years. I’d spent a lot of time in that house as a kid. However, the place had changed. The stairs grew wider, the paint more polished. The basement had turned from a childhood hideout to a crisp modern room with bright wood floors. A wall of windows along the back, once fogged not by dirt but by time, had been replaced by bright new glass and crisp white frames.
The house looked beautiful, like it belonged in a magazine. But beneath it I saw the house of my youth, with all its charm and character, its creaking floors and brass knobs.
I think my friend’s mother probably looked at me the same way. She saw the new, older, slightly more polished me. But, below she still saw the young kid who used to run around her house with her daughter, singing, dancing, playing with dolls and playing pretend. Perhaps that’s why we fell easily into a conversation about old times and she said to me, “you always had a great imagination.”
That was one of the best compliments anyone has ever given me. Imagination is the lifeblood of a writer. Without it we couldn’t create stories in our heads. Whether you’re writing a memoir and re-imagining your past into a story people will relate to or you’re writing a biography that imagines what it’s like to be another person or you’re imagining a world of people and things that don’t exist, writers and books would not exist without imagination.
Imagination is a legacy.
But, imagination isn’t only for writers. I recently listened to a piece on NPR (I love you NPR!!) about one of the main differences between Neanderthals (the pre-humans that went extinct 40,000 years ago – except for some minor genetic breeding that led some of their genes to be in people today) and homo sapiens (our ancestors who survived to evolve into modern humans). One of the examples they gave of why we survived and the Neanderthals didn’t was curiosity. The story explained that Neanderthals would walk and walk and come to a mountain range or a sea. When they reached a barrier, they’d just stop or turn back. They couldn’t imagine what else to do. Whereas, homo sapiens were explorers, pushing further out. They came to a mountain range, they’d climb it, despite potential peril. They could imagine something beyond it. This is our legacy – imagination.
As children, our imaginations run wild with ideas – making ourselves superheros, finding monsters in our closets, dreaming of how we’re something significant and exciting. How and when is this stomped out of us? When do we become the people who give up on our dreams, throw those books across the room because they’re hard to read or the people who never buy those books in the first place? Our children certainly know how to imagine. That’s why they come home with crazy, beautiful artwork and, like my childhood friend, run around playing pretend.
We need to use imagination more.
It’s likely my imagination drove me to be a writer. It’s a blessing and curse because imagination haunts my brain day and night. I don’t think in broad concepts and ideas, I imagine. I lay awake at night conjuring scenes for my books or scenes and ideas for new books I haven’t written in my brain. When I’m considering a problem, I imagine conversations with people, where we are sitting, how we’re positioned, what everyone is wearing.
I also imagine what it is like to be someone else. I am constantly imagining, putting myself in the place of someone else to the point it’s almost reflexive. Was I born this way or did I hone this skill? Is imagination like learning another language – if you don’t use it, you lose it? I think so. I think we’re all capable of imagination, some of us just choose not to use flex that imagination muscle.
Imagination can hurt.
Sometimes my imagination wanders to places I don’t want it to go, dark sad places. I once tried to read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I didn’t get very far in before I started balling and threw the book across the room because my imagination takes me so deep into a story it’s like I’m there, feeling every bit of pain. And it’s hard. This is why books can be so powerful. Maybe this is also why people avoid using their imagination, just like I did when I threw the book across the room. It hurts. It hurts to imagine the pain of others, to try to feel what they feel.
Imagination can save us.
But maybe that’s the problem with the world. We don’t imagine enough. When and why do we start avoiding our imagination? Is it when it starts to cause us pain? We avoid stories about pain, because it either hurts or because we know we might actually feel something. Perhaps we don’t want to feel. We don’t want that pain. No one wants pain. But that doesn’t stop it from existing.
Without our imagination, we can’t relate to people who are different than us. And that is what is lacking in the world today – imagination. We can’t or won’t imagine what it would be like to be the refugee fleeing their home, a place they don’t want to leave or give up on, but they have no choice. We can’t or won’t imagine what it’s like to be born a boy and feel like a girl, told there’s something wrong with you because you feel that way. We can’t or won’t imagine what feels like to be a person who grew up in a single town, with a single perspective, never exposed to anything else.
We’re all guilty of lack of imagination. So, I say, let’s all imagine a future where we’re not.
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one