Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Value of Imagination

It is hard to figure out why telling a story is so important when the front pages of every newspaper flood fear, hatred, danger, violence. Reading through headlines and delving into analysis pieces and reportage, my head swirls and I look away and then look back, committed to know what is happening in the world--yet fearing it and feeling insignificant and deeply troubled by it.

There is a question that reverberates inside me a lot lately: How do we not get lost? It was a question Jennifer and I first heard when we watched the film Dinner with Friends years ago. It is the story of two couples--one of whom is divorcing, the other of whom stays together. By the close of the film, one partner wonders aloud, "How do we not get lost?" In essence, how do we confront and face all that seeks to obliterate love and forgiveness and mercy in our world, and not get lost?

This past weekend, my seven-year old, Tyler, and I went outside to climb the trees in a nearby field. For hours, we climbed and created imaginary games about pine-cones and contests and races and reaching higher. I didn't notice it in the moment, but those hours were the first in a long time that I was existing at only one moment: the present one. I was so deeply enthralled by the imaginary visions of my son that I stopped--at least for a while--with the imaginary visions of all the horror that was yet to come in our world.

I hadn't realized how deeply it was with me. All the time. On the drive to teach my 7th graders, while teaching, and on the way home.

How do we not get lost?

I think there is a balance between knowing as much as we can--trying hard to stay current and then do all we can whether giving money or time or sharing messages or writing letters--and then also living in that beautiful world of possibility: imagination. And when we do one to the denigration of the other, we lose our ability to keep moving forward. We lose our ability to have the endurance to keep loving and letting ourselves be loved.

We become, without balance, much like one of the characters in a novel. The Absolute Value of Mike, that my 7th graders read. His name is Poppy and he is unbearably despondent after the death of his son, Doug. Rather than allow his wife and others to love him, Poppy shuts himself off from the world. The world is too painful, too cruel and untrustworthy, and so Poppy chooses to sit and remain in a world of his own.

What Poppy doesn't realize is that while his son had suffered and died, the world is still very much alive. There is more work to do, and more love to bequeath. Poppy had left the possible--the new kinds of love that others around him choose to imagine--undone and unexplored.

The value of imagination is that it helps to provide balance, and imbues us with the energy to keep moving forward, believing that even in the face of treacherous violence and fear, love is still possible. Storytelling, then, is a way of sustaining our spirits so that we can act in love. Stories seek and speak to our souls so that we remember, inside, that life is still worth living.

As a kid, I remember reading and re-reading to shreds a book called The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was a collection of ghost stories--hilarious and ridiculous and terrifying---that I could go to anytime the house erupted with screaming and yelling and fighting and fear that I wanted to flee. Those ghost stories were a form of imagination that helped me live through a reality and yet move on from it, simultaneously.

When Jen and I visited Russia many years ago, we were deeply struck by the orphans we met and learned with there. They thrived on two things: hugs and imagination. They let themselves be enthralled by the power of stories, and they gave and received hugs with a kind of reckless abandon and efficacious joy. I know so little of what their lives were (and are) truly like, and yet in the small moments they showed both of us the power of balance: how to live through horrendous experiences and still crave love, crave imagination, crave the possible.

God, help us crave the possible rather than quit because of the present. Help us to be willing to walk into stories--both of ourselves and others and this world and other worlds--allowing our souls to be stirred up there, empowered for further action, small or bigHelp us to remember balance, boldness, and tree-climbing. Help us not to flee truth, but to touch it and still walk forwards.

This, I think, is one way that we do not get lost. This is the power of imagination.