Many years ago, when my children were small, I came across a bookmark that really resonated with me. It was a quotation from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
It recalled to me the work of Latin American theologian, Rubem Alves. He also stressed the importance of imagination as essential to get beyond the confines of the present socio-economic culture. While I have forgotten much of his writing, I recall one statement: that the most important thing we can do is to teach good literature to children. It develops their imagination to think of many and different possibilities. They don’t regard the present situation as unchangeable reality. In a similar vein, the late Robert Kennedy stated: “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
Recently, my friend Jane had her then 5-year-old grandson staying with her during the COVID shutdown, while he attended virtual school in the morning. In the afternoon they went exploring in their imagination. Out of these journeys came a recently published collection of poems for children of all ages. At the beginning, they write: “These poems are the record of our travels together into the world of the imagination where anything is possible.” On the back cover is a fascinating reflection on imagination.
“The world of the imagination is a a place where we can create adventures where always we are free to travel, make friends, explore our universe, and free to become whatever we choose. In our imagination, we are free to cry, to laugh, to ponder, to hope, to dream. Whether adults or children, wonder and joy our ours to see, hear, feel, respond to, and share these magical moments.
“Our hope is that these poems will awaken your spirit and fill you with gratitude and joy for the experiences that await you in your imagination.”
(This book is available through our website: www.touchingthespirit.ca, or by email: email@example.com)
There is a marvelous children’s story by novelist, Margaret Laurence, called The Olden Days Coat. In the story, 10-year-old Sal is disappointed that she has to spend Christmas at her grandmother’s house, shortly after her grandfather had died. One day there, she explores an old trunk, where she finds a girl’s winter coat. She tries it on and is magically transported into the past where she meets a young girl who turns out to be her grandmother as a child.
Another children’s novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pierce, also involves a trip to the past. A young boy, Tom, is sent to live for a time with his aunt and uncle. He discovers an old grandfather clock. When the clock strikes thirteen instead of twelve, it opens up into a garden of the past. There he meets and forms a friendship with a young girl who gradually gets older in the course of his many visits.
While both stories involve an imaginary trip to the past, they are a reminder of the profound connection that can exist between children and grandparents. Often the older person will be a storyteller to the younger, and both will venture into the realm of imagination. Both grandparent and child are defined not by jobs or productivity, but by presence. In some ways, both are closer to the mystery in which our lives are enveloped.. I recall once giving a talk at a local hospital. Afterwards I spoke with an older woman who was a nun and a retired nurse, who now did volunteer work at the hospital. She said that that morning she had helped a child to be born and, in the afternoon, assisted at the death of an old man. She said that she was struck at the similarity of the two experiences. They both had a sacred quality about them.
Often in the busyness of life, we can become immersed in what is immediately demanding, and forget for a time what is really important in life. I recall a woman once saying to me that she was too busy having children to really enjoy their presence. There is a song by the late Harry Chapin, called Cat’s in the Cradle. The father and son talk about getting together and spending time with each other, but they never do.
Both the young and the old may be closer to the mystery of life that echoes strongly in birth and death. People like Wayne Muller stress the importance in our life of what he calls “sabbath time.” This is a time when we leave aside for a moment our busy routines and pause to enjoy and reflect upon life, a mystery that carries both joy and sorrow, both gardens and wastelands. Folk tales begin with the words “once upon a time.” These words can take us into the realm of imagination which can shine a gentle light on the mystery of life.
Writer, G. K. Chesterton, says that it was good to be in the folk tale. Immersing oneself in that realm which he calls “elfland,” evoked a sense of gratitude. Gratitude, he adds, is the test of all happiness. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. He is grateful as well for the gift of two miraculous legs to put in his stockings.
In the story, The People Could Fly, enslaved people are afflicted terribly by the cruelty of the enslavers. They are still able to rise above these horrors in their imagination. There also they form their plans to escape by the Underground Railroad. Viktor Frankl, recalls that, even in the horror of the concentration camp, he was able to commune in imagination with his absent wife, as well as the beauty of nature.
Imagination here is certainly an escape from a terrible world. But as we have suggested, it is far more than that. It is the possibility to explore new worlds, whether through story or music or painting and even through daydreaming. It can expand our understanding of self and of life, help us modify our attitudes, alter the script we have been following in our life. By opening up all these possibilities, it not only expands our freedom but can also sustain and develop our hope.
May you ever enrich your own imagination. May you then grow in freedom and hope. And may this growth find expression in compassion for yourself and others who share your life in near or distant ways.
October 17, 2022