Sep 22, 2006

Imagination

I come from a line of strong women, chief among them a great aunt who lived in a large farmhouse. As a child there, I was never bored. My aunt was always canning, planting, milking, cranking the ice cream freezer. On one particular visit, I asked her if I could gather the eggs from her hen house.

“Honey,” she said firmly and looking up from a cake she was icing, “you can do anything you think you’re big enough to do.”

This opened unlimited possibilities. “Even ride old Topsy?” I said.

She studied me. “If you think you’re big enough.”

A few Rhode Island Reds squawked and flapped angrily that day as I robbed their nests and brought in eight tan eggs. The elderly gray mare (since retired) was too tall for a young girl to slip a bridle up and over. But I never forgot my great aunt’s pronouncement. Her invitation to life kindled my imagination and made risk-taking a matter of course.

For example, when a friend recently learned that more than 30 years ago my husband and I started a commune in New Mexico, her eyes grew round. She shook her head and said, “I just can’t imagine!”

Exactly.

British author Dorothy Sayers once described faith as “imagination actualized by the will.” But even with the strongest will, a person can’t believe what she can’t imagine.

To form mental pictures seems as peculiar to our species as our ability to form words. As children, a good deal of our mind’s activity goes to imagining. We are cowboys and Indians, explorers, astronauts, ballerinas. No one teaches us to invent these little scenarios. And not until our worlds narrow do our imaginations wane—only to flare again when we graduate from high school, as a world of shining possibilities spread before us like a feast.

As adults, we make life choices—school, career, marriage—that necessarily limit our options. The problem is that we also tend to let those choices limit our imaginations. Like any muscle without exercise, unused imagination will eventually grow flaccid and atrophy, along with our ability to believe in what we cannot see. We lose hope for second chances, fresh starts, better tomorrows.

So we must exercise our mind’s eye. We must dream what might have been or might still be. Wonder who we’d like to be. Wonder what life is like for the cashier at the supermarket! Feel life expand. And believe.

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