I think imagination is one of those underrated human abilities that we take for granted.
It is appreciated but never directly or as a whole. Whenever we're a witness to some jaw-dropping art piece or brilliant idea for a project, we usually credit the talent, skill or creativity behind such genius work. It’s always, “How did you do that?” or “How did you think of that?” The specific term ‘imagination’ is not really what comes to mind when finding the right words to praise someone’s specialty.
Maybe there’s something juvenile about the word. Imagination is sometimes associated with make-believe, a child’s play born out of boredom and innocence. In this scenario, it’s essentially like playing pretend for the fun of it. However, imagination isn’t necessarily pretending that fiction is reality, is it? Isn’t it fair to say that it is the art of thinking out of the box, using our minds to form thoughts that let us view the world through a new lens?
Well, it sounds like a fair definition to me. One that explains why I believe that the power to imagine is what allows us to be independent beings.
The terms ‘imagination’ and ‘creativity’ are related but not exactly the same. The first is a broader term that refers to any sort of wandering of the mind while the latter is what comes after. For example, I can’t write this article without first thinking of what I want to write about. To put it another way, I am being imaginative when coming up with an idea, and I am being creative when choosing to express the idea through writing.
When we imagine, we exercise the ability to think freely. We don’t confine ourselves to what current reality presents to us. To imagine is to see the world zoomed out by focusing on what could be out there or what could be in store instead of placing limitations on how our thoughts should flow.
Without free thought, independence or autonomy over oneself cannot be achieved. Think about it this way: in fiction and history alike, either the youth or the oppressed tend to be dissatisfied with the status quo. They don’t like the way things are done because they can imagine a world where people are treated better. While the thought itself cannot do much on its own, its very existence proves that those in possession of it can freely form ideas. This means that these people are not solely defined by social norms or expectations. They can think on their own, and this is the first and arguably most important part of being independent. If people were unable to imagine beyond the reality surrounding them, you can bet that we would be living in a very different world today.
In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the world is under the rule of the most extreme form of totalitarianism. One of the key points of the political party that keeps up this rule is “ignorance is strength.” Essentially, everyone’s thoughts are strictly manipulated into being in favor of the party. The proletarians or the lower class are fed with the idea that education is not important, hence, they go on “without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is.” Meanwhile, the members of the party are mentally trained to stray from “dangerous” ideas by constantly contradicting what they know so that they believe in lies that become truth. As much as this sounds insane, the novel feels frighteningly possible when read from beginning to end.
Orwell emphasizes that the inability to completely control an individual’s mental space and process would lead to failure in maintaining a totalitarian state. The imagination of an individual is a danger to absolute rule because it is powerful. It instigates action beyond expectation. If humans were to lose the power of free thought, they would be nothing but mindless creatures unable to do anything of their own will.
Interestingly, I feel that there is a common perception, maybe even phenomenon, of young people being the ones to question the existing conditions of humanity. My intent in saying this isn’t to generalize, but long story short, I came upon this realization after watching the musical Newsies. I couldn’t help but think about the other Broadway shows that I like such as Hamilton, Wicked, and Les Misérables; at one point, all these stories revolve around the youth fighting against an injustice of some kind. This reflects our real world as well, which is quite obvious considering most of the musicals I mentioned are based on historical events.
I sometimes wonder why this is often the situation society finds itself in: students and young adults fighting for change with their new ideas and innocent hopes. Why is it that the narrative often paints the grown adults in power as ignorant or traditional in a detrimental way?
Once again, maybe we can examine the role that imagination has on this particular circumstance. While this is not scientific at all and this is just me rambling off the top of my head, I was thinking that when people grow up, we become so used to the world around us that we become firmer in the beliefs we grow to have. This is arguably a good thing, but when beliefs are firmly in place, they’re evidently hard to shake off. Consequently, it becomes more difficult to imagine a world where these beliefs are outdated or harmful. In short, limitations are put onto our imagination because we become comfortable with our perception on how things work.
There are bound to be flaws in this line of thinking, and it isn’t right to say that the aforementioned situation always happens to everyone. I just think that it is a possible explanation. Maybe it also explains the “childish” association attached to the term ‘imagination’. Maybe it’s childlike wonder, the kind that makes us ask questions and dream about different realities, that helps our imagination be limitless. The youth tend to be called idealistic, but maybe this is because our imagination helps us see the potential for the world to continuously change for the better.
I wouldn’t say that the relationship between imagination and independence is a groundbreaking idea. Just thinking about the two for a second can reveal the connection they have, and others may say that it’s almost common sense. However, I felt the need to put the relationship into words after realizing the simultaneously beautiful and tragic nature of imagination.
Although imagination is a wonderful ability to have, it's important to remember that it can cause a great deal of harm too. Thoughts of wanting things to be “better” can lead to bad ideas and dangerous actions. Not everything that is new and shiny is good in the long-run. Despite this, having the power to imagine both good and bad is better than having a powerless mind altogether.
To see the world and all its possibilities is to be independent. While 1984 presents what happens to us when we perceive reality as purely black and white, I believe that another classic novel shows us what’s in store when we see real life in all its shades and colors. To quote Jane Eyre,
“I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.”