I have always been a big fan of imagination. If you are sad, it’s good to know that a day will come when you are not so sad. It might be hard to believe at that time, but it is generally true, and knowing this can give you hope. When you are slogging away working at something, knee deep in exhaustion and weighed down with a sense of being unable to continue, it can be reassuring to have a sense that this too will pass, and a time will come when you can put your feet up and just take it easy. If your life is not how you want it to be because you are deeply dependent on a substance, or in a bad relationship which seems inescapable; and stopping using or leaving, or changing things in any way just seems impossible, it can help you start to move in some way if you can imagine a different life, a better relationship, a healthier you. Which is why when I read Daniel Gilbert’s witty and interesting book ‘Stumbling on HAPPINESS’ I got a bit worried. Daniel says that imagination has some pretty horrible shortcomings. And he lists three.
The first is that imagination has a tendency to leave things out and to put other things in. (P. 224) And it doesn’t tell us it is doing this. (Pretty darn cheeky of something which is just part of who we are anyway). So it seems we are actually getting a pretty inaccurate image of what the future might be like.
Secondly, imagination tends to project the present onto the future. How we are feeling right now is likely to influence the way in which we imagine the way we will feel in the future. So if we are feeling awful now, the way we imagine how we will feel will be impacted by that present feeling…and so we get an inaccurate idea of how we will actually feel.
And thirdly, imagination seems unable to recognize that things tend to look different once they happen. If certain things happen in the future, we may not feel as great or as terrible in that future as we actually imagine we will.
So I started to think that this sounds like bad news because when a person is struggling with life, it can be really helpful, with a good dose of reality added in, to look forward to a time when things will be better, to imagine a better life, a new and improved self…and to start to move towards it. So can we still do this in working with people whose lives are tough? Well, I imagine we can. And with all the limitations that imagination supplies us…and I am inclined to agree with Daniel’s observations, there is much it can still offer us in our endeavours. Some years ago I met a young man in East Timor who, throughout his whole life, believed that East Timor would be free. He believed this when his mother was killed and he continued to believe this when arrested and beaten. He was certainly capable of imagining a new Timor Leste. And it was what gave him hope. And it was what drove his actions. His imagination also generously extended to those he resisted, believing too that they did not represent a nation but only some part of it. He could ‘see’ a bigger picture. An extraordinary imagination in my opinion; one filled with hope, good will and compassion. So is it that present circumstances feelings, beliefs, and imagination get all mixed up together? Yeah I think so.
And Daniel (P 238) gives me hope in the final pages of his book by saying that:
And while he adds, as his book constantly points out, that imagination is supremely imperfect, he also says (P 238):
So I am going to do some more looking into this topic, as I can see that it has something to offer. And I can’t really imagine a life without imagination. Or more accurately, I think I can.