The last few days I felt off, down, everything seemed more difficult, trying. I was anxious, I was struggling, but finally the feeling passed…I started to feel more like myself.
The experience had me thinking about imagination and how at times it seems to work for us, while at others it seems to work against us.
“man is impossible without imagination, without the capacity to invent for himself a conception of life, to ‘ideate’ the character he is going to be.”
Josè Ortega points out that “man is impossible without imagination, without the capacity to invent for himself a conception of life, to ‘ideate’ the character he is going to be.” When Ortega makes this claim, he means that imagination makes it possible to create an idea of who we want to be, of who we are. Once we create this idea, once we create for ourselves a conception of life, we can then try to make it a reality, to become that person.
Imagination is, no doubt, an important part of being human. With our imagination we can create ideas of things or states of affairs that we cannot meet with in experience or that are not possible. The creation of ideals—of things like the ideal state, friendship, or community—is possible because of the imagination.
Our imagination makes us adept at solving problems. With it, not only can we figure out what is wrong with our situation or circumstances, but we can figure out how to overcome these problems and difficulties as well. It makes it possible to see things differently, to conceive of problems in ways that make solutions apparent.
This ability to create, to think beyond mere experience, is a powerful tool indeed, but it is a power that can work against us as well. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca reminds us that “we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
“we suffer more often in imagination than in reality…We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”
Our imagination can work against us as much or perhaps more than it can work in our favor. When we imagine personal blocks, struggles, limits, we tend to make them out to be worse than they really are. We work ourselves up, we make ourselves afraid, and we limit ourselves, we block ourselves from pursuing the things we want.
Have you ever tried to start a new project, for instance, and fear prevents you from taking the crucial first step? You imagine your failure before you begin – you imagine emotional suffering of all sorts, or you imagine the ridicule of others. Faced with the unknown, with uncertainty, our imagination runs wild, and it is able to come up with all sorts of scenarios that terrify and scare us.
This, however, hits on something important. Our imagination is a useful, important tool and necessary to exercise our creative powers, but it works best when it is directed towards something understood. What is most damaging, it seems, is when the imagination is used in uncertainty, in cases where we don’t know or have no insight into the possible outcomes.
To use our imagination correctly, we need some information, we need to have some starting point, some hard ground to support our creative endeavor. The imagination needs a foundation, and that foundation is built in knowledge and experience. The more we learn about something, the more experience we have, the more effective will our imagination be.
When I think back to times when I’ve struggled, it’s always after I take a first step, after I gain some perspective, that my imagination becomes most useful. In those times, I have a clearer sense of what to expect, of the actual situation and circumstances, and with them I can use my imagination to solve problems and create beyond them.