Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those who do have no choice. - Patricia A. McKillip
I’ve long since deliberated over whether I was a weirdly imaginative kid by nature, or by nurture, and I’m still not sure which it is. Growing up on a farm in the Niagara region, surrounded by orchards and vineyards and valleys and forests, I grew up with a deep sense of wonder. Television was only allowed in very small doses and once the TV got turned off and we got kicked out of the house, we were on our own.
This setting was a very safe one for me and there is thankfulness for that in my heart that I carry with me everywhere. I grew up protected by my family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles– but not overprotected by them. They fed me and clothed me and gave me a bed to sleep in and the love I needed, and then they left me to do my own thing.
I was also protected by the landscape around me. Those vineyards and forests were a refuge, a place where I was free to be my truest self. Again, I’m not sure if this made me into the sensitive child I was, or if it just nurtured that sensitivity, but whatever the case, I ended up with this sort of soft, naive interior. But a wandering imagination coupled with a sensitive spirit quickly became a problem the moment I stepped across the threshold of that refuge.
The problem was this: traditionally, those who hold the most power in the world tend to have the least imagination. I don't say that to offend or cut down, I say that because power and imagination (along with its sister, creativity) are opposites. Power, by its very nature, is about knowledge and control and effective, measurable results. Imagination and creativity, on the other hand, require wonder and curiosity, long periods of time daydreaming, as well as chaos, uncertainty, and a willingness to take risks, to try something that will probably fail. Power does not like these things. So when those who have the most influence in our lives are also the ones who see imagination as something that is not only useless, but detrimental, a conflict arises. The worst part is when those who love you most, those who want the best for you, are the people who see imagination as something that you don’t take with you when you grow up. In their minds, imagination is something you leave behind in childhood, because that’s where they left it. And because they’re tasked with helping you grow up, they see it as their responsibility to dissuade or diminish or snuff out your imagination entirely – not to be cruel, but because they love you and they think it’s in your best interest. They want you to value things like knowledge and control and effective, measurable results.
You can probably sense where this is going.
The sensitive, imaginative child needs to foster these parts of herself, so that she can become more fully who she is. But if the ones around her – the ones who love her most and have the most control in her life – are explicitly or implicitly* dissuading or diminishing these parts of her, she has to make a decision. She’s too young to cut herself off from her loved ones and pave her own way, so she has two choices, which are actually just variations on the same choice: she can actively turn against her true self, or she can hide her true self. Both of these things are detrimental to her, and I would argue, to the ones she loves.
The good news is, the damage is reversible. Usually the reversal happens much later, in adulthood, when the threads that bind us to the ones we love most start to loosen and we start to see things in a new way. But there’s a lot of work to do. Not only do you have to reclaim those parts of yourself you hid or turned against, you have all of these dysfunctional strategies to counter now. You can’t just water that little seed and hope it grows, you have to pull out all the weeds (and keep pulling out the weeds) and expose it to the right amount of sunlight and you might even have to put up a fence to help protect it from all the things that want to eat it up.
It’s hard work, but it’s more than possible. And it’s important, work, I think. For you, and for all the ones just like you who haven’t come through it yet. So protect your imagination. It's precious and the world needs it.
*The distinction between explicit and implicit is important here, because the sensitive child is adept at reading implicit messages, like body language or silence or sarcasm, and implicit messages are harder to negate or act against. For example, it's far easier to say: "Dad said that reading all day is a waste of time, but he's wrong because [insert logical reason here]." When nothing is said outright, though, when the loved one uses implicit signs (like slamming cupboards or constantly interrupting the child from reading to remind her she has homework to do, or whatever), it's much more difficult to figure out. All the child knows is that she now has a feeling of shame associated with reading all day and she doesn't quite know where it comes from and if she doesn't know where it comes from, then maybe it's inherent. With implicit messages, the child can't confront her father and say, "It's okay for me to read all day because this is the only time I have to read all week and reading is important to me for these reasons..." Because her father will say, "I never said you shouldn't read all day." Which will be both true and untrue, and the child will be left with the feeling of shame without any way to negate it. That's a much harder web to disentangle yourself from. When something is clear and concrete, you can concretely act against it. When something is unclear and illusive, you can't.