Who on earth can do without imagination?

A preview of Jerry Rhodes’ new book ‘I Wonder’

All too soon after he has been put to bed, five-year-old Johnny appears at the door of the sitting room.

“What is it, Johnny?” says his mother. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

“’Cos there’s a pirate under my bed, and he has this cutlass, and if I get too close, he’ll cut me off at the knees.”

After a cup of warm cocoa and some hugging, his father takes him upstairs again.

“It’s all right, Johnny,” he tells him. “It’s only your imagination.”

Of course Johnny’s dad means well, but what a thing to say! ‘Only’, indeed – such pejorative comforting, as if only what is real can matter. It’s as bad as restricting your children to crawling and walking, never allowing them to run or leap.


It gets worse 

Without imagination, you cannot hope or fear, suggest or avoid, there is no aspiration or opportunity, no resourceful ingenuity, because you have no way of dealing with the future, or anything not known already: you are stuck with opinions and facts, which must be in the present or have happened in the past.

Indeed you could not suppose, suggest or speculate about what might have happened or what might have caused it, so even rational logic would be crippled. No chance to think up anything new or original. We would be stuck in a prison of the mind.

No wonder to imagine is felt to be so awesome, noble or even divine, for poets and artists. Our images of it offer a glimpse into the ineffable universe of mind.

gloved hand holding scalpel

Suppose you were on the operating table and the surgeon’s scalpel slipped, severing all connections between imagination and the rest of your mind. You would give up conceiving anything exceptional, for now you can do only the obvious, see only what is there, and not what might be. All you say is prosaic, pedestrian, boring.

Always vulnerable and blinkered

You would always be vulnerable, because you’re unable to think of any kind of threat to your safety until it happens. Even your wishes are limited to what you already know, so aspiration or vision for something better is out of your ken. Whatever is difficult or not met before is bound to defeat you, for you’ll never think of a way out, nor any other way of dealing with the issue.

So blinkered are you that you accept without question what others propose, and act with the rigid obedience of a robot. As for seeing a situation with the eyes of someone else, such empathy is beyond you, not because you are unkind but because they are not you.

No learning without imagination

Everything feels inevitable, but worst of all you are unable to learn anything that is not explicitly shown you, and then that is all you take in. The notion of using an experience for anything else than its immediate function or purpose is totally out of bounds. Anything that hasn’t happened yet, you won’t care, because your spirit of curiosity is dead.

Without imagination, expect performance to be mediocre at best and a disaster when the task is difficult and success-critical. “Why didn’t they think of that?” you exclaim in despair – but we are all guilty. If you don’t know and cannot judge, what else is there but to use your imagination?

Wonderment is our life force 

To wonder is a moral imperative – unless of course you are content to remain stuck with existing knowledge and your best reasoning about it. ‘Wonder’ is the only source to draw on that takes you out of a hole or reaches further than you can normally grasp. There is no limit to imagination.

© Jerry Rhodes 2020

“I Wonder: The Science of Imagination”