Room for Imagination

Einstein, who dwelt in the realms of numbers and facts, recognized the essential nature of imagination. He said of it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.” Such is the power of imagination.

When I was a child, you could have placed me in an empty room with a window, and I would have been capable of entertaining myself for hours. I would likely have transported myself to other worlds; created stories and characters. No toys and no boredom. Now? I would need something to “do”—as if creating were not enough. But that is the limitation of the adult. Happy is the adult who can keep his childhood, his imagination.

The primary playground for my creative play was my bedroom. It was small, probably not more than 8×10, but to me, it was a large world—enlarged by creativity. I animated nearly everything in my room. The colorful plastic cart next to my bed was a large sand crawler; my chest of drawers was a sky-scraper on which imaginary characters, usually represented by my fingers, would have super-heroic adventures; my bed was an airplane on which I would wing my way across the country; my stuffed animals were real creatures and friends whose feelings would be hurt if I didn’t play with them often enough. In short, my small room was big with the magic of stories unthought-of and with worlds of my making.

Such is the world of the child—wide with possibility. Indeed, the child cannot easily distinguish between possibility and actuality—that is, reality. Because a child can conceive of a castle in the clouds, he sees little reason why it couldn’t exist. Whether or not the castle actually does exist is of little consequence—the childish heart grows happy with the idea, and he begins to feel a longing for the world of his creation. If he could, he would make it real. It is probable this is what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes meant when he said that God “has put eternity into man’s heart….” Eternity is housed in the imagination, for imagination is the instrument of longing and of desire. If we could not imagine, we could not yearn for anything more than the moment. We could not progress, we could not improve, and we could not desire to do either. And so imagination is one of the most mystical and spiritual of mankind’s powers.

Now, my room would seem small and shabby— certainly not entertaining. I would see a worn area rug, a bin full of toys, a second-hand chest of drawers, and a cheap, colorful bed-spread from K-Mart adorned with monsters shaped like letters of the alphabet. In short, I would see what it was not, rather than what it could be. It would not be magical; it would be small, limited by the confines of four little walls and a window.

I remember the shift between the magical bedroom of the child and the more concrete, limited room of the adult. I was 12 years old, and very much aware that I would soon be a teenager. And with that awareness came the realization that teenagers do not “play”—that is, they must dampen their imaginations. Flying on one’s bed and imagining one’s dresser was a skyscraper was childish. Like Peter Pan, I realized the world of the adult was far less wonderful, but unlike him, and like most, I chose to leave childhood behind. It was a choice, and one which I could have delayed. But I grew up, and my room was no longer magical—though there were times when I wished it were again.

In a sense, growing older enlarges the world. You become aware of ideas, facts, and feelings that were before hidden and secret; the things you were always told you were too young to understand. You step outside the bedroom and realize that outside is a very real world. In short, you experience more. But, in another sense, growing older makes the world shrink. The adult is limited by facts, by reality, by what is and what cannot be, and so a room is just a room—the sum of its parts.

But growing up is a necessary thing, and an expansion in understanding is essential for the proper function of civilization. If the world were run by children, it might begin to look very much like the island in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Imagination untempered can far too easily become corrupted by man’s self-centered inclinations. Indeed, the problem with imagination is that it is usually a selfish pleasure—one that hates to be interrupted by responsibility. I remember I would often get angry when I was distracted from my reveries by my mother calling for me to clean my room or pick up the toys I had left all over the house. I remember thinking I never wanted to grow up and be occupied by doing things instead of imagining them.

But that’s what reason does—it reminds us of duty. It tells us that we are not alone, and that we bear a responsibility to ourselves and to others. Reason, then, is not the enemy of imagination—it is its compliment, its balancing force. But without the counterbalance of reason, imagination would not just lead to evil, it would lead to impotence. Left only with imagination, we would have many fantastic ideas and dreams, but we would have no way of pursuing them. We could not make our imaginings happen, no matter how ardently we longed to. Imagination, then, gives reason its soul, and reason gives imagination its body, and the world of the child is incomplete, though wonderful, because it is too selfish. The world of the adult is incomplete because it is too limited.

Unfortunately, most adults do not have a problem with too much imagination, but too little. The child needs to grow in reason to be a man, and the man needs to grow in imagination to be a man. But while adults have lost much of their power to imagine, it is not wholly lost. Museums, art galleries, films, poetry, myths, and other literature are testaments to this. They awaken the inner child, the child still longing to create and to feel the thrill of possibility and of endless ages. We will spend money and time to reawaken our childhood, though of course, it takes more powerful things than toys and backyards to fire our feeling of wonder again—specifically things that are compellingly beautiful, sublime, or tragic. But we can still feel it.

We must discover a second childhood and return to innocence if we would know joy; we must recover the magic of the ordinary; be thrilled again by small things; by gardens, trees, laughter, stories, friendship, and, yes, even little rooms with little windows. And we must be truly grateful for the great gifts of existence and experience. For it is then, with all the aching of a distant memory and a faraway home, that we will hear ordinary things hum with the vibrations of eternity, and our world will again grow large.

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