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The power of imagination

Recently, Eddie S. Glaude has argued in Time magazine that the current US presidential campaign involves an attack on our imagination. “We must resist those voices who urge us to settle for the world as it is,” he writes. Rather, in line with political awakenings of the past, we must imagine what a better world would look like. In Glaude’s view, imagination is the key to our development of a better democracy — the key, for example, to achieving racial justice and economic equality.

Sure, imagination is powerful. But can it really change the world?

Indeed, it is tempting to answer “no” here — to disagree with Glaude about the transformative power of imagination. After all, imagination is the stuff of fancy, of fiction, of escape. We daydream to get away from the disappointing monotony of daily life, but no matter how fervently we imagine ourselves on a tropical beach, we’re still stuck at our desks staring at the blinking computer screens before us. And no matter how fervently children imagine themselves to be superheroes and ice queens and Jedi knights and mermaids, their imaginations will never be able to endow them with the superpowers that they lack. The snowmen they build aren’t going to talk to them, and the sticks they wave around are never going to turn into lightsabers.

But in fact I think Glaude is exactly right about the tremendous power of imagination. To see this — to see how imagination can indeed be a transformative tool in the betterment of ourselves and the society in which we live — we need to understand how imagination can be put to two different and seemingly incompatible uses. On the one hand there’s what we might call ‘the transcendent use of the imagination. When we daydream in meetings, when we escape into a good book or movie, when children play games of pretend, they are using imagination to ‘transcend the reality in which we live. But on the other hand there’s what we might call ‘the instructive use of the imagination. When we use imagination for problem solving, for insight into the experiences of others, for exploration of the potentialities and possibilities that the future might hold, we are using imagination to ‘learn about the reality in which we live. And it seems puzzling that one and the same mental capacity can be put to both of these uses: How can the very same mental capacity that enables us to escape from the world around us also teach us something about it?

Inspiration by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr
Inspiration, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr

The key is to recognize that our imaginings must be in some way tethered to the world in order for them to be useful to us. When we let our imagination fly completely free, it can be of use to us, but only in the transcendent sense. Rather, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, our imagination can teach us the most only when it’s appropriately reined in.

When Olympic athletes were heading to compete in Sochi in 2014, it was widely reported that they used imaginative exercises to prepare for competition. One Canadian bobsledder reported that in the year leading up to the Sochi games he had mentally practiced the Sochi course hundreds of times. An American aerialist skier worked on her imagery techniques while sidelined with an injury and claimed that the work that she’d done in imagination helped her to return to competition a better jumper. But for any of this imaginative preparation to be at all useful, the athletes had to conform their imaginings to the facts about the courses they were going to run, to the actual twists and turns that they’d be facing.

Imagination has played an equally important role in other domains, but here too we see the necessity of aligning with real world facts. Albert Einstein credited much of his revolutionary scientific work to his imagination, and Nikola Tesla claimed to have mapped out all of the details of his inventions entirely in his imagination before ever putting pen to paper or doing any work in the lab. But for Einstein’s scientific theories to be accurate, and for Tesla’s inventions to work as they should, they could not ignore facts about the world. The gravitational constant is what it is, for example.

And the same holds true when imagining our political future. Martin Luther King had a dream, and it was a dream that forced people to look at our world quite differently from how they’d looked at it before, but it was a dream that was nonetheless a dream about the world in which we live. For the dream to come true we’d be forced to change, and to change dramatically, but the change was a possible one because it was anchored in basic facts about human nature, about our empathetic abilities that we were failing to exercise. It’s precisely this kind of imagining that can be most helpful to us. For imagination to change the world, it must be anchored in the world. How exactly to strike the delicate balance — how exactly to remain sufficiently anchored without being held hostage to the status quo — is an extremely difficult task, and it’s for precisely this reason that genuinely transformative imaginative vision is as rare as it is.

Rare, but not impossible – and as such, it’s certainly something to work towards. To make a better future, we do need imagination — but it can’t be imagination that’s completely unbridled. Yes, we need to dream big, and we need to be able to see beyond the state of the world as it is now. But that doesn’t mean we can let go of the world entirely. In dreaming big, we also need to be sure to dream smart.

Featured image credit: Open up to imagination, by Ryan Hickox, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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