The Power of Imagination

In his work Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl remarks that while being able to imagine a future beyond the camps did not stop death, it did create the opportunity for life. He observed that with sufficient imagination, we can tolerate the intolerable. He was, after all, a survivor of the holocaust.

While our problems may not be quite as severe, they are no less deserving of attention and empathy; and likewise, how we learn to deal with them will benefit from a proper dose of imagination.

A Boys Dream, by Dana Mallon, 2011.

When a loved one passes away, we cannot imagine getting through the day without their cute reminders that they are there for us; when a partner leaves, we cannot imagine waking up in the morning to an empty pillow beside us; when we receive a debilitating injury, we cannot imagine getting through the day with a constant jarring pain every time we take a step. We cannot imagine a world different to the one we currently inhabit. We stop. Walls rise around us. We become unable to summon an alternative world where things could be different than they are now.

In one of the many self-fulfilling prophecies of the mind, whatever we think will be, becomes. We turn life into the experience we already believe it to be. If we believe our loneliness will always be painful and our injury always debilitating, than this will be the case. Of course, this is not an argument of magical thinking, but rather a recognition that, to a significant extent, the world is a reflection of how we already perceive it to be. In this sense, we live very much in our own minds.

Despair, by Edvard Munch, 1892.

It is surely difficult, especially when we are oppressed by intense suffering, to conjure the necessary strength to see things differently. As is often the case, we fall into the trap of nostalgia. We may try and reconnect with an old flame after our partner has left us, or we may spend our time rummaging through old photographs after the death of a loved one, or we may run back to an old job when our current one does not work out. Of course, these may sometimes be necessary short term mechanisms to help us get through things. But we can easily trap ourselves in loops of returning to the past, rather than creating entirely new scenarios for ourselves in the future. Frankl cautions, we must reject the narrow prison of the past and embrace the spacious freedom of the present. Unable to imagine a fundamentally different future, all we can see is images of our past.

‘There is a danger’, writes Frankl, ‘in robbing the present of its reality’. By ‘closing our eyes and living in the past’, we seal our fate and doom ourselves to live in a reality that no longer exists. Despair offers us all a ‘challenge’, and ultimately, it is up to us whether we decide to make a ‘victory’ out of opportunity, or ‘vegetate’ in defeat. What we require, is sufficient imagination to craft a future out of the broken pieces before us.

In his work The Body Keeps the Score, the psychoanalyst Bessel Van Der Kolk writes,

Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities – it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes comes true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasures, and enriches our most intimate relationships. When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of mental flexibility.

Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.

Imagination is a metaphysical springboard, lifting us off from the past towards a future not yet defined or clearly seen, but certainly just as (if not more) interesting and exciting as what came before.

Of course, telling ourselves and others to let go of the past and keep on moving is easier said than done. Sometimes, when things get particularly bad, the dark chasm we find ourselves in seems immeasurably deep and impenetrable to the light of benevolent thoughts. We simply cannot imagine that after our loved one is struck down with disease that life will ever be joyous or happy; or that after the person we thought we would spend life with leaves us, that we could ever love again. These are our darkest moments and they call for a commensurate amount of inner strength and determination. With imagination, despair can be transformed into courage, and defeat into acceptance, appreciating that while your life may never be what it was, you have the power to determine what it will become.

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