Friday, August 21, 2009


I was lying in bed this afternoon during a thunderstorm, and I glanced up at my newest Karborn painting. It's a tremendous painting called "When Science Fails and Stories Become True." As someone who has a great interest in the realm of the imagination, I have a great fondness for the painting and its title. Looking at it,I started to think about the idea of "imagination".

Imagination can be couched as a good or bad thing, to hear others tell it. On the "good" side, imagination leads to creativity. Children are often very creative, and their lack of corruption by education and social influences when they are very young can make them very creative and excited about life. I remember being a very creative child--I read a lot, and watched a lot of TV, and if I liked something enough, I made up my own story about it, sometimes re-enacted it. I'm surprised at how long I held on to that sense of wonder, that innocence. I had teenage siblings, and some of them were quite derisive of my childhood play, to the point that I sometimes felt ashamed or stupid. But I can't entirely blame family--going to school and socializing with other kids sometimes enhanced my imagination, but a lot of the times others were just as derisive as my siblings. By the time I was 10 years old, I had fallen into a depression, as puberty started early in me, and it seemed I was grieving the loss of my imagination. Everything was starkly "real" at that point, and only got worse for many years. Fortunately, I have been recovering a lot of that as an adult, though not all of it.

On the "bad" side, imagination can lead to irrational fear. Think of the child with monsters under the bed. The mother or father will come in, show them that there is no monster, and tell them that "it's all in their imagination", or that they "just dreamed it." Some families take a dim view of imaginative children--there is a sense that after a certain age, having an imagination is "immature" or "childish". Lord knows that countless songs, poems, and bildungsroman (how do you like THAT word, genre fiction catalogers?) have been written about the loss of childhood innocence, the cultivating of a rational adult. There is no arguing the need for adult rationality. Just because someone wants to fly doesn't mean it will happen if they jump off a building. Adulthood requires a lot of demythologization. One believes in Santa Claus for many years, then finds out it's Mom and Dad, but Christmas doesn't have to lose its traditional appeal as a result. Demythologizing is a necessary part of life. But why is the result often a total loss of innocence and imagination?

As I'm writing this, I notice that I use the words "innocence" and "imagination" almost interchangeably. (And how many words started with the letter "i" in that last sentence? But I digress...). I think innocence of a sort is a criterion for having a vivid imagination. There is a need to suspend disbelief, to throw off the limits of what we think is possible. Imagination is what allows us to find ways around difficulties. It also allows for the creation of art and literature that reminds us of our humanity and the human condition. We really can't do without imagination.

When I look at children and young adults today, I worry about what's happening to imagination. Kids are forced to start acquiring "knowledge" at very young ages. When I look at school curricula today, I am shocked at how much kids are expected to learn in their primary education. Some of the things kids need to know by the third grade we didn't even cover until the 7th grade. I'm not sure they're any smarter for it. When I look at kids today, at least in the university classrooms and libraries, there is mostly a sea of bored, distracted, and disinterested faces. They don't read anymore, and modern movie effects leave little room for imagination. I don't want to suggest that there isn't anyone out there doing anything creative, or that imagination is dead. I would just suggest that it doesn't have a healthy environment to flourish.

I add that concern to the one about the Christian right, which still seems to have so much sway in this country. Secular backlash only seems to create more violent retaliation at the opposite end of the spectrum. In addition to trying to make stupid laws about teaching creationism in schools and denying rights to people they don't consider "moral" enough, they are also interested in destroying imagination. Imagination to them is "devilish"--I look at the backlash against the Harry Potter books as a prime recent example. "Kids shouldn't read Harry Potter because it encourages an interest in magic and the occult." As if no one ever wrote a book about magic before J.K. Rowling. Kids should be kids, as long as they stay inside this crate you've put them in. God forbid they consider anything fantastical. I'm not sure what I would have done if I didn't believe in magic growing up. Come to think of it, I still do believe in it. I just view it differently--it's been "demythologized" for me.

Dr. Michael Kogan, a Jewish theologian at Montclair State University and former Philosophy and Religion chair, once said in a talk that God is "infinite possibility". Evil is that which tries to limit us, to tell us that we can't be any more than what society tells us we can be. So, back to another irony--those claiming to represent Christianity are actually representing the opposite. It is true that organized religion is designed to keep us from having religious experiences. In a positive sense, that could be like entering deep water with a life vest and a raft. But I see this kind of limitation as a negative--it's more about crushing and controlling the person with fear and false morality, and has nothing to do with "God" at all.

Atheists can also contribute to this problem--some have a self-confident sneer of rationality that says you are nothing more than a crackpot if you believe anything that hasn't been proven by "science". Science is indeed a useful tool, and has really opened the doors of knowledge on many things. But some things don't lend themselves to laboratory testing, and that doesn't mean they aren't real, at least in some sense. You notice that there is a strong interest out there in ghosts, psychic phenomena, UFOs, cryptozoology, and a host of other things that deal with what is unknown. Many of these things can be written off as hoaxes or hallucinations, but not everything can be tainted with the same brush. Some things are truly unknown.

And is that a bad thing? Regardless of what we learn about how the universe began and what it is composed of, I think that there is always the mystery underneath, and that mystery fuels our imaginations. But we don't even need to look that deeply--the flow of human life itself is great fodder for the imagination, as long as we don't let others destroy it. It's a fundamental component of the beauty of humanity.

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