The Lack of Imagination

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. “ Henry David Thoreau

It was a beautiful winter day in the Alps. The sun was high, the mountains looked gigantic, the temperature was just right, and deep snow was everywhere. The parents were going to the village and I decided to stay behind with the kids. I figured I could take them out and go for a walk with the dog. We could also find a place and build a castle or dig a snow cave. The last thing I was worried about was to find something to do out there!

When I was a kid, winters were spent outside. The minute I would come back from school, I would slip into my big suit, put my hat, gloves and scarf on and hurry back to my tunnel. Our front yard would get so much snow, that with the cold, we would be able to dig our way into the heart of this tiny cold mountain and make ourselves a cave. My god did I spent so many hours in there! On weekends, we would venture into the woods to play hide and seek. Often, after tracking some animal prints for hours, re-enacting our own version of the Wild Kingdoms, we would reluctantly go back to the house, only to wait for the next morning and go out again. Of course we had television and computers, but playing games that originated from our fascinating imagination was always much more interesting. Whether alone or with others, there was never a shortage of ideas. And those snowball fights were epic!

What I experienced that weekend, though, was sad and tragic. There I was that morning, in the lobby, my jacket on, ready to smell the fresh mountain air. The kids were nowhere to be found. In fact one was at the computer, and the two others watched television. Nobody wanted to go out. Despite the bright sun blasting through the windows, each of them was staring hypnotically into their respective screens. I managed to pull away the one at the computer. The others, too entrenched and blasé gave no sign of even considering the outdoors.

Not even 30 minutes into our walk up the snowpath that I started having this feeling that the child was bored to death. While the dog was having the time of his life, barking at a small block of ice, picking it up and throwing it in the air, the child seemed lost. I took the lead and initiated the laborious task of building a hole. He was happy for no more than 20 minutes before finding himself bored again. Now not even an hour into our winter adventure that he told me that he wanted to go back. The minute that his boots were off and his jacket was on the floor, he went straight back to that computer and stayed there for hours.

What shocked me the most was not their short span of attention but their total lack of creating imaginary worlds. Children today don’t know what to do if it is not given to them. They don’t have the patience nor the ability to dig their way out of boredom. Living in an era of “Helicopter Parenting” everything is done for them. Their after-school schedules are so tightly organized that they don’t have anything to think about. So they move between school, structured activities, television and computer. And since imagination finds its energy when one is alone with his or her thoughts, children unfortunately have seldom time to develop it. As if this was not bad enough, “being alone” today in our culture, is something every one is trying to avoid, at any cost.

In her talk at Ted, “Connected but alone?”, Sherry Turkle talks about how we have come to see being alone as almost a disease or something that needs to be solved. So we solve it by inventing tools that give us the illusion of always being connected and therefore, never alone – social media sites, online video games, and of course the most obvious one, the smart phone. Solitude is such a taboo word that our incapacity of dealing with it pushes us to connect with anything simply to fill that void. When I was younger, these moments when I alone with my thoughts and dreams, when I was left to use my imagination, these were my favorites times. I have spent my entire life making sure never to loose them and to protect them. For me they are my most precious possession. They are my freedom.

Doing some research on the web, I found on Zen Habits… Breathe a post titled The No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People. Interestingly enough, being alone is one of the most important aspect of creativity. Here are some quotes from the article:

Doing nothing has a way of synthesizing what is really important in my life and in my work and inspires me beyond measure. When I come back to work I am better equipped to weed out the non-essential stuff and focus on the things I most want to express creatively.” Ali Edwards

“When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.” Mozart

“On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.” Einstein

“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Kafka

“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.” Tesla

“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” Picasso

There is also Richard Louv, author of the Last Child in the Woods, who often talks about the connection between nature and imagination. He argues that sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally “scared children straight out of the woods and fields,” while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors “safe” regimented sports over imaginative play. Louv states that this Nature Deficit Disorder has a negative effect on everything from the attention span, stress, creativity, cognitive development, and children’s sense of wonder and connection to the earth.

We are robbing our children from the magic of childhood, turning them into young adults. And the consequences could not be more tragic. For a child, imagination is crucial for dealing with the realities of life. It is a safe world where one can process hard emotions. What else is Dr.Seuss if not a giant repertoire of crazy stories about the hardships of life. Kids need to develop their own “crazy” world. They need to find time where there is only thing left to do, which is to explore their imaginary potential. Let them believe in fairies and the impossible, because at the end of the day, this is where dreams are born.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. “ Michelangelo

4 thoughts on “The Lack of Imagination

  1. As much as I love my bbr and macbook I value more the time to explore and yes, to be alone. Perhaps one day this younger generation will discover this for themselves. I love the Kafka quote. It is one of my favorites, as is the Rilke “in the silent, sometimes hardly moving times, when something is drawing near, I want to be with those who know secret things, or else alone.”

  2. Amigo, that is one of the best essays you have written. Love it, and so very true. I spent all my childhood on the farm, alone, running around outside in my own imaginary worlds where every stick of wood was turned into a gun, a light sabre, a magical wand, a sword, a spaceship and every part of nature was my (and my dog’s) playground. It was as you say, where dreams were born. Still is.

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