Don't forget your wings

Once I saw an 11 year old boy walk out the front door of our school, say goodbye in a serious manner, and then immediately sweep his arms behind him like wings and take off running down the sidewalk like a superhero. It seemed so effortless and un-self-conscious, a free expression of imagination. I couldn't help but stare after him, grinning.

How extraordinary that we have a single word, imagination, that combines a whole set of abilities: intuition, visualization, awe, invention, playfulness. These are not just any abilities, but many of our highest talents as humans.

I've realized though that we have some odd assumptions about imagination. It goes without saying that we expect young children to have free and easy access to their imaginations, and it's wonderful to see it in them. But oddly, we seem to expect imagination to drift away, much like childhood itself. Adults with vivid imaginations are likely to be seen as exceptional, perhaps destined to be an artist. It's as if we expect imagination to be a rare quality starting in adolescence, despite the fact that it contains many of our most evolved and valuable talents.

Why is this? And could we somehow keep our imaginations more alive, for longer?

Think about imagination in a young child, say four or five years old. Imagination bubbles up in a way that she can't control, such that when she describes a nightmare, she gets intensely scared all over again, and later is comforted by the reassuring presence of a stuffed animal. This age may be what comes to mind when the word "imagination" is used. Now fast forward to the beginning of puberty, when that child is becoming more and more focused on the peer world, able now to sense that others are perceiving and judging her, forming groups with or without her. Her orientation shifts outward, and her greater neurological development means that she can choose to ignore her imagination in order to appear a certain way to peers. She wants more than anything else to find belonging, to be accepted, and that might mean losing the willingness to run superhero-like down a city street. 

I think our mistake, as adults, is that when a young person become able to turn their imagination "off" for social purposes, we assume it's off for good. We might think that talking about it with them would seem insultingly childish. We let go of it when we just need to evolve how we work with it.

Take this example. Recently I was speaking with another middle-school student who had learned about guided visualizations, in part as a way to manage stress. He described to me that he had constructed a beachfront cabin in his mind, where it was always summer, where he could go to rest and feel better. What a beautiful use of imagination, and what a valuable channel to have open during the stresses of adolescence in particular.

There are so many other examples, near and far. Einstein famously used his vivid imagination to conceive of physics scenarios and solve seemingly impossible problems, distilling them into scenes that made the complex science involved much more understandable. International 'memory champions' often construct elaborate 'memory palaces' in their minds, using visualization to remember incredible amounts of information. A wise mentor may invite a young person to share through creativity what they can't yet say in words, helping them release emotional blocks and find better connection with others. A great teacher may use a guided visualization to explain a concept, as when they ask students to imagine the root system underneath a tree, or invite them to look at a city street as just a thin layer of crust on the earth, with all kinds of interesting things happening underneath.

Personally I like to use imagination to defuse conflict situations. The next time someone is angry with you, maybe glaring at you, can you use your imagination to see the fearful child underneath, the one who learned how to glare by receiving that look from someone else? Can you soften in that way, and hold an angry person with tenderness, as you hope your own anger would be held?

These are some of many, many examples of imagination remaining a vibrant, active part of our lives even as we go through the turbulence of adolescence. If one of our goals as parents and educators is to help young people tap into the full range of their human potential, then surely retaining access to their imagination is essential. Jung said that our health as adults depends on a porous boundary between conscious and unconscious, letting creativity and insight bubble up from the unconscious, rather than repressing it or fearing it was "childish." What if we more intentionally asked our imaginations for help, activating them with our attention? Could we model that as adults, inviting imagination in the kids in our lives even as they become teenagers? I can imagine a much more interesting world if so...