Dear Donagh,

…. My sister and my two brothers, we’re a very arguing family.  I don’t mean fighting.  We get on well, but there’s always a debate going on.  I'd be seen as the most religious member of family apart from my mother.  The others sort of take it and leave it.  My two brothers biggest put-down is to say to me - You have a vivid imagination.  One of them says this so often that it sounds like a disease and it makes me feel there’s something wrong with me.  Have you any ideas about how to push back against that?  I love your website.  Deirdre

Dear Deirdre,

I'm happy to hear that you get on well as a family, but it must be a severe trial to live with people who exclude imagination.  I suspect that we are even more in the power of the things we exclude.  Your question was very timely for me, because I got the best lesson of my life on imagination just last week.    

I have a 5-year-old grand-niece named Tess, who has an intensity of imagination that I have seldom seen even in great actors.  When I visited lately she said to me, “You be the daddy and I'll be a little girl.”  That was meant to be just an easy trial run, I think, but I still managed to fail miserably.  I tried to be funny, but as everybody knows, play is deadly serious.  It took only seconds for her to see my failure, so she lowered the bar: “I'll be a cat and you be the owner,” she said – thereby letting me know that I was only capable of looking after a cat.  She went into character immediately, sitting on the grass with her paws together, looking up at me.  Not being used to conversing with cats, I was a bit lost for words, but I managed to bring out, “Have you caught any good mice lately?”  Just at that moment, there happened to be a mouse passing by, invisible but quite fat (she told me later).  With one swipe of her paw she caught him, brought him here and put him down dead in front of me.  Again I was stuck for words, but in a while I said, “What would you like with that?”  “A bowl of milk,” she said immediately.  So I procured an invisible bowl and poured some invisible milk into it.  “No!” she said, “a real bowl!”  I went into my brother’s man-shed and found a suitable tin.  “No!” she repeated, “a REAL bowl.”  (Can it be that fantasy has to be anchored to something solid if it is not to float away like a balloon?)  I went through the back door into the kitchen and emerged with a real bowl.  She was sitting on the mat, waiting.  Curiously she had no problem with invisible milk, which she lapped up in almost no time at all.  It was now my turn again, and it wasn’t easy to think myself into the mind of a cat.  I remembered they don’t know the difference between day and night, so I said. “Oh, look at the time!  It’s way past my bedtime, and the last thing I do every night is to put out the cat.”  And I closed the door on her.  And waited….

I waited for ages, a minute or even more, but there was no move from the other side.  She was serious about being a cat.  I was prepared to wait even longer, but when her grandmother, going out to the garden, opened the door she saw Tess curled up on the mat.  “Did you fall?  Are you hurt?”  But there was no reply, because as everyone knows, cats don’t talk.  But just then, Tess’s mother appeared and said, “Here, puss!”  That cat-child jumped up at once and bounded into the house.  She remained in character for at least another hour, before reverting to Tess. Young children are the real experts on imagination.  I had a 70-year head-start on her, but she left me in a cloud of dust.  From now on, she will be the authority I consult on matters of the imagination. 

She has already corrected me for thinking that imagination was nothing but a flight from reality.  I think now that while it is often that, it can also be exactly the opposite: a flight into reality.  We adults take it for granted that we are just ourselves and nothing else.  This view is the result of a deficit in imagination.  Aristotle said that “the human soul is, somehow, everything.”  Tess would heartily agree, but she didn’t need to read Aristotle to know it.  Nor did she need to read the mystics, ancient and modern, who proclaim that we are one with everything.  This sounds like heresy to modern western people, heirs to what is now a tradition of individualism in every sphere.  (Have a look at the ‘Jacob’s Well’ page for this month.)  But this ‘tradition’ goes back no further than the 16th century.  Tess could teach us all, and she has already started with me.   

Your brothers may not be so impressed by a 5-year-old teacher, so I would suggest that you quote Aristotle to them instead, who would be 2,402 years old if he were still with us (he was born in 384 BC).  Or you could quote Einstein to them – a man they would probably credit with being an arch-rationalist like themselves.  “Imagination,” he wrote in On Science, “is more important than knowledge.” 

Good luck with your brothers, Deirdre.  If Tess is ever going to organise a remedial class I'll let you know and you can recommend them for it.  But the most important thing of all for you is not to cripple your own imagination in order to be like them. 


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