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Some Reflections on Imagination for the Coming Year

December 29th, 2017 by

As we approach the new year, I will say something about the imagination that may seem bold, but it is merely an observation: Our imaginations are powerful and necessary. They help us to create and process new ways of doing things. They help us, as the proverb puts it, to attempt to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” They help us to project and even sometimes make a better world. At the same time, our imaginations are also sometimes tainted by fear. We can think the best; we can think the worst. And in our imaginations, thinking the worst can be paralyzing. It is usually as wrong as its opposite, those proverbial rose-colored glasses.

Some people claim not to have an imagination, but I don’t think this is true. I suspect that people say this because they are realistic about themselves, but also because they do not engage in some artistic venture. But the truth is, to reflect at all on what has happened to us or what may happen, and to fear what may happen, all of this is to be imaginative. As we think and plan for the new year, we are being imaginative. As we do approach the coming year with expectation and hope, we also perhaps have fears. As my Myer-Briggs scores showed long ago, I am deeply introverted. My fears always kept me from doing something that I long wanted to do–go into teaching. I finally faced those fears. Fear still keeps me from occasionally doing something I think would help someone else. In these cases, fear has always seemed like my imagination turned negative.

As a grieving person who misses a loved one, I have been hearing the following from many people over the last three months: “I can’t even imagine what you are going through. There are no words for me to say.” This has been respectful and supportive. It is one of the ways that many of my friends have allowed me to be with them in ways I need to be. At the same time that they have not wanted to tell me that they “know what I am going through,” they have acknowledged something.

As a tangent, I also think that they have said something about imagination. We can try to imagine what another’s suffering is like, but that may be a projection on another person that is actually not helpful. Some of what we think might be accurate and helpful. But if anyone else is like me, we tend to think the worst possible scenario, and that can become an expectation that can be hurtful to the other person. The truth is that the person who is suffering from loss may not be experiencing it in the way we see it happening in our worst fears. Perhaps nothing ever approaches this worst case scenario.

For the most part, I have little to offer from where I stand. Grief comes and goes in waves. I will be distracted by something, a book, a conversation, an activity. And when that activity ends, I will feel bad again. But this is not a constant. The fact that I cannot keep a constant, 24 hour focus on one idea or image is probably healthy in the long run.

As for those New Years resolutions, probably the best thing we can do is what we should do all year long, and that is to allow reason and imagination to coexist in a meaningful tension. We need to give our full respect to both. We should not allow our reasonableness to break up our imagining some better world. At the same time, we should not allow our fears or hopes to be unreasonable. Constant, realistic, incremental expectation of positive fulfillment is probably a reasonable path. The old quote, from Thoreau, I think, about building a foundation to our castles in the air seems to tie in here.

It should be obvious that imagination is a quality we need for everyday existence. Whether we like it or not, it is one of our main headlights. I think we especially need some imagination for that commandment about loving our neighbor, as we try to put ourselves in the shoes of others. That takes an informed imagination.

But we should remember that there are two headlights, and the one I’ve mainly been talking about–imagination–can go quite dark without the other, perhaps low beam of reason that keeps a light on the road right in front of us. The problem is that many of us would rather be on some other road. I know I certainly would right now. But it is by following the road we are on that we get to those others, wherever they take us.

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Comment by Emily Griesinger on December 29, 2017 at 1:48 pm

I agree with you, Tom. We have TWO headlights. Both should be “on” at all times! Both are our inheritance as human beings created in God’s image. Though “dimmed” by sin (what we have done and left undone), these lights still shine and will shine ever brighter as we move toward
the Light.

Comment by Tom on December 29, 2017 at 2:43 pm

Well said, Emily. Our lights are dimmed by sin but also open to being enlightened. I know my analogies break down at some point. But thank you for your reminder.

Comment by Maureen on December 29, 2017 at 6:36 pm

Thomas
Thank you for continuing to share and reach out as you embark on this “road less traveled” not by choice. Courage is faith that has said its prayers, I once heard. You and family show great courage.
As we enter a new Year I find your words both practical yet hopeful and expectant. Thank you for your words.
Maureen

Comment by Tom on December 29, 2017 at 6:47 pm

Thank you, Maureen. It’s a day by day walk.

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