Like the rest of you (I imagine!) we have been binge-watching in this season. Last week was Lord of the Rings: I have to say that after following the plight of Frodo for three nights in a row, it did make me feel that maybe we are not doing so badly. Yesterday was also the 75th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day and a lot of my UK friends were having tea-parties to celebrate with neighbours (over the garden fence, of course) and reflecting that we are nowhere near as tough as our parents’ generation. In this season, while there is a lot of negative stuff out there in the media, some real, some the result of paranoid imaginations, I am still grateful to the film-makers. Not only do they give us a bit of welcome relief from the boredom of being constrained – they also demonstrate very clearly the power of imagination to transform our lives in this season. Right now it’s easy to see the bad, the scary, the limiting – but who will see the possibilities?
I have long been an advocate of the necessity for nurturing the quality of imagination – both in children, who start off with such a rich deposit of it, but also for adults. Imagination is the key to all practical projects to improve the world in general or my world in particular. We would not have the power of flight if the Wright brothers had not imagined a world where humans, too, had wings. I would not be able to play trivial pursuit with my kids and grandkids via Zoom if someone somewhere (and more than one person, actually) had not imagined a world-wide web of interconnectedness. As Albert Einstein said, “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” Sir Isaac Newton watched a falling apple and saw the laws of motion that govern planets. The English chemist John Dalton used the facts of chemistry and his constructive imagination to form atomic theory. Michael Faraday was another English man in the 18th century who had very little formal education but went on to become one of history’s most influential scientists by his relentless curiosity, imagination and experimentation.
But innovation is not the only value of imagination, as J.K. Rowling, a master of tale-spinning, points out:
“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.” (J.K. Rowling).
Imagination is the key to empathy – which is probably one of the most important skills needed to improve our interpersonal relationships. We get on better with one another when we use our imaginations to see the world through someone else’s eyes. You have heard people say that in today’s business world EQ, or emotional intelligence, is more important than IQ, mental intelligence. Well, imagination is the doorway to one of the fundamental skills of EQ. We not only imagine better outcomes for ourselves, we can imagine better outcomes for others, especially when we imagine what their current world is like. Compassion is birthed out of imagining what is must be like to be homeless or jobless. Being able to get someone else to imagine and feel the same thing could be the start of an NGO or government policy that will change that crisis in our society. Right now, through the media, we are being exposed to a massive crash-course in empathy. As we huddle together in a country where the full impact of Covid-19 has not yet been felt, we see people in other countries burying their dead – and it should make us less arrogant about the risks we take and the attitudes we hold – there but for the grace of God, go I. As we imagine the weight being felt by our world leaders, whilst carrying their own personal burdens (Boris in the ICU while his partner and the mother of his child is isolated somewhere else) we might become less critical and pray harder for them, their wisdom, their decisions, their strength, their sanity.
And yes, some of us have imaginations that have fed for decades on a diet of horror and crime – and it’s really challenging not to imagine the worst. But that’s the incredible capacity of the human brain, the human heart – we can actually choose to imagine better. What if we all emerged from this season as better human beings because we have stopped to consider what really matters in life and how we can protect that? What if we started to imagine, not just how we can survive, but how ourselves and others might thrive. I sat in on a webcast hosted by the British Psychological Society discussing how we prepare ourselves and others for the “New Normal.” And I was struck by this thought (that’s also been expressed online): as we grieve the “old normal” let’s just remember that not all of it was good, some of it was downright toxic – for people, for relationships, for the planet – and we might imagine (after this season of sheltering and enforced working from home) that there might be more family-friendly ways of working in future? There might be more equitable ways of valuing human endeavour (like valuing the low-status, lowly-paid frontline workers that we are all depending on right now!)
“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” J.K. Rowling
So, imagination is the seed of faith and a door of hope. In a world and a country as troubled as ours, it can be easy to lose hope – we see fear and self-preservation all around us, we see crime and violence, we see corruption and economic decline. We need to imagine a better world. We need to imagine ourselves as world-changers in that world. If we can imagine it, then it’s possible that we can be that. For the sake of all the generations that come after us.