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

Dreams

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”For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Vincent Van Gogh

It is dark. Absence of colors. Black and white tones. Various shades of grey.  Daylight illuminates the world around us, but the night transforms everything into a monotone landscape. For a moment, I wonder, if actually this seemingly boring reality has a purpose. My eyes pan from left to right trying to find a destination. With no where to go, they are left with one choice – go up. And right there, I understand. We spend our days looking in front of us. Always trying to see what is coming. But the night belongs to dreams and there is only place you can find them – in the Stars. I am curious if this is why in Asia they write from top to bottom, as if to insinuate that everything in life starts with a Dream. My eyes are fixed on this black tapestry made of an incalculable amount of white pinholes. My pupils dilate trying to capture the gargantuesque size of the Universe.  Millions of specks of light, so distant from our planet than their location is measured by the number of years light takes to travel from them to us. Their sight reminds me of the infinite amount of possibilities our world holds. That we still know so little about Life. My thoughts of boredom are long gone now as I lay down on the sand, gazing at a world that is only reachable through my imagination, through my dreams.

Man has been looking at the stars for thousands of years. It has been a source of inspiration, a source of mystery, a source of faith, and a tool for orientation. It also has been a way for us to understand our relationship with Nature, and with Life. Ever since the dawn of humanity, the night sky and Nature have walked hand in hand. Through the ages, from all cultures, every time we raised our eyes to the night sky, we saw animals and mythical creatures. The Zodiac, invented more than 10 000 years ago, depicts our symbiosis with the Universe through images of animals. For centuries, constellations were named after Nature.  It is only in the 1700’s, at the early age of the Industrial Revolution, that we changed our relationship with the Stars. Frenchman Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, famous astronomer, broke all the rules and named all of his discoveries with man-made objects.

In a world where more than half of the population lives in cities, we tend to forget there is even a night sky. Our eyes barely rise above the horizon. Our sense of vertical is developed mainly around tall buildings. And if we do one day find our way to look passed the top of those skyscrapers, we find an almost white canvas with a few sparse bright dots. 

A night sky is a limitless source of creativity and fascination. Like painting by numbers, you trace imaginary lines from star to star, giving life to worlds that know no boundaries. Shooting stars and northern lights, props for magical stories. As much as we learn about the Universe in museum or on television, there is nothing like experiencing the sight of a night sky saturated with stars, the Milky Way casting shadows on the ground – it is overwhelming, it is humbly.

We need never to forget to look up. We need never to forget to dream.