Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Imagination - The Organ of Meaning

One of the side effects of being raised as the only child in the house is having a particularly vivid imagination. Or at least, it should be, assuming that TV time has been properly limited and reading has been sufficiently guided towards those books that improve the mind. Given that my parents were unsuccessful in restricting my TV viewing (I was a sneaky and stubborn little devil) and that I read every last installment of the Babysitter's Club that had been written up that point by the time I was in 3rd grade, one might surmise that my imagination was irreversibly spoiled.
Luckily, fate stepped in and my imagination was granted two saving graces: 1) an innate passion for movies of an epic nature and 2) an inexplicable love for the classics. The first imbued my seven year old mind with a sense of adventure- that life is a grand tale and that behind every seemingly innocent rock or bush, a unexpected surprise may be waiting to whisk you away into some journey unknown. The second opened my mind to the complexity of plot, character, and meaning that a story could embody, as well as to the power of atmosphere. The Three Musketeers, Tale of Two Cities, Pilgrim's Progress, CandideThe Age of Innocence- at 9, I definitely didn't understand most of what was going on in these books (resulting in a slow process of rereading in adulthood), but what I did grasp was the fact that they were all damn good tales.
I say all of this because I've realized recently that an active imagination, like a super power, can be used for good  or for evil in my own life and lives of people around me. See, I'm always writing storylines in my head. All day long, I'm making connections in my head between what happens and what it means and how it relates to other areas in my life.
My propensity for the fantastic often results in equally fantastic stories. I come home, notice the door isn't locked. There's no one else home. I go into the bathroom and think that the shower curtain is slightly out of place from when I left it. I go into the kitchen to get a knife and then return to the bathroom- I yank the curtain back, fully expecting to meet either a serial murderer or a dead body that serial murderer has disposed of in our house. (Just to set your mind at ease, I have yet to find either)
Or I am meeting someone for coffee and they are a few minutes late. I remember the ambulance I saw passing me on the way to the coffee shop. I realize that the person must have been into an accident, and within moments, I'm eulogizing them. By the time they arrive, I'm half in tears, besotted by void that they will be leaving in my life. They're not always such macabre stories- I'm sure if the long lost King of Prussia were to  materialize, I would soon realize that I must be his long lost daughter.
My narratives don't always run to the fantastic. It is the ordinary ones that really can get me into trouble. C.S. Lewis once said that "Reason is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning." This quote has really been sticking with me lately and convicting me deeply. I gather small data points all day long- objective points of truth. But I also attribute significance to all of the data points that I've gathered- subjective points of meaning. To be clear, I'm not saying that meaning is subjective. The shower curtain askew does not mean a serial murderer is in the house- it means that one of my roommates moved it slightly after I'd left for the day. The friend who is late has not been tragically killed on I-66 - they fell asleep and napped past when they needed to leave to be on time. However, I so often have just enough data points to make a subjective guess rather than an objective assessment of the meaning. The simple answer is that I need to be more disciplined about waiting until I have enough bright lines from data points to make the objective assessment.
The maddening part, however, is that I most often make these guesses when I will in all likelihood never have enough data points to make the objective assessment; matters of the heart and soul aren't often quantifiable. Extrapolation is necessary to attribute meaning. If your friend is acting quiet, you have to decide- is he mad at me or is he sad about something or is he just tired? I am displeased to realize that the extrapolations I make invariably cast the person in question in the worse light possible. I don't assume that they have good motives or even neutral motives. I always assume their motives are bad, and that's a really ugly thing.
There's one person at work who seems to always make my life harder. In my mind, I have developed a truly vicious storyline of why he's so thoughtless or inefficient. But rarely do I ever take a step back and think, "Maybe he's having a hard time at home right now. Maybe he's feeling a lot of pressure from the client and is just not focused on how he's treating me. Maybe someone in his family is sick and he's distracted." I am capable of this kind of empathy. I extend it to most strangers. Yet I've recently noticed that if my rights or comfort are infringed upon in anyway, that's when I get mean. That's when I assume that the person is purposefully trying to make me mad or deprive me of what's due to me.
I guess what I've been reflecting on is that even if someone really is as diabolical as I am imagining them to be... who cares? If someone infringes on my rights... who cares? I won't try to expand these statements to everyone, because some people are in circumstances where they are in genuine suffering because of the way people are treating them or the rights that they are being denied. Their heart in those situations are their business, not mine. But for me, in my life, most bad treatment or denial of rights result primarily in  my discomfort, annoyance, or inconvenience. For those outcomes, I can definitely decide in my heart not to think the worst of the people in question. Their motives are between them and God, and it's really none of my business. I guess that's where "turning the other cheek" starts. It's not placid apathy or perpetual victimization. It's a predetermined mindset to value loving someone well over asserting your own rights.
I want to use my imagination for good things. I have a pretty powerful one- it's what makes me good at my job. People don't realize that being imaginative and being analytical are really just heartbeats away from each other. At work, I see the relationships, meanings, and possibilities between logical entities or numbers or deliverables or tools. In the rest of my life, I can see the relationships between what I do and how that affects other people and God. I can understanding the meaning behind what someone says or why an author used that image for something. I can see the possibilities for where different paths might take someone or what I could become. I want to use my imagination to empathize with people, to love them better, to understand God more, to write stories that people enjoy.
So that's my next little project. Using my powers for good, not for evil.

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