The Uses of Imagination

When one of my nearest and dearest is running late, I immediately assume they’ve been kidnapped and chopped into pieces. Because that’s usually what’s happened to people, right?

I wish I were kidding. I have an amazing imagination, just mind-bogglingly fantastical and out-there. I begin thinking through who needs to call whom to spread the word of this person’s death. I berate myself for not having bought a newish funeral outfit and having to wear something dowdy or tight. I wonder how I’ll feel years from now… will I ever have a sunny day again without this dear person?

And then they walk in the door, breezily shouting, “HI, I’m home,” and I think, “Oh, of course you are. You were just stuck in traffic.”

I heard author Brene Brown speak this year (which I really enjoyed). She asked for a show of hands in the audience as to whether there were others, like her (and me), who jump to similarly dire conclusions about loved ones. There was nervous laughter and not a few hands.

So here’s what I want to know: What if, in a time of uncertainty or concern, we changed the channel on our mind’s video stream, unlocked a new way of thinking? What if — for example — my husband was running late and I thought this, “Oh, I bet he ran into a friend in the parking lot at work. How fun. I bet they’ve gone for a beer to catch up and are planning a great adventure together. I bet they’re going somewhere cool. And I bet they’ll invite me to join them, and we’ll have a blast, and it’ll be the highlight of the year. How cool.”

That seems more productive. Or at least a better use of my thirty seconds. Or my brain and heart and my imagination.

I really do have a choice about these things. And besides, the chances of any of our friends or family being “chopped into pieces” is mercifully miniscule.

6 thoughts on “The Uses of Imagination


  1. Well . . . my first thought on reading this is that once you’ve lived through a real, wrenching catastrophe that flies up out of nowhere and leaves heaps of ashes in its wake, you have some excuse for letting your mind do these things to you.

    But then I realized that the big challenge is always the same, no matter what, and that’s choosing to look the world full in the face and still find a way to be happy. It’s not just that we waste time dreaming up hardship where there’s none, it’s that we misunderstand what hardship is. I mean, even in the middle of the worst day of your life, you’re going to have exactly the same need for love & tenderness & others that you have today.

    And what that means is that there’s nothing to do but strengthen your capacity for taking in those things. Ironically, my guess is that part of why we do that imagine-catastrophe thing is to remind ourselves how desperately we love certain people . . . so in a way there might be something positive going on. Maybe there’s a way to use those moments to remember that my circle could expand even more, and that I could have even more beloved ones to get anxious about if I only made a bit of an effort!


  2. Well said, Kate. Thanks! Yes, I think it’s like building trust muscles — realizing that we can survive things we didn’t think we could. For me as a Christian, I feel utterly dependent on God for those seemingly impossible times.

    Brene Brown, when she spoke about this, suggested using these panicky feelings as gratitude prompts, as a chance to say something like “I’m so grateful for the connection with _______ and realizing how much I would miss him/her makes me want to love them well now.” I’m making that up, but she said something similar. She talked about vulnerability coming on the heels of joy — feeling a deep gladness over something or someone being almost intolerable, inducing vulnerability and then driving us to self-protect by imagining catastrophe.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Valuable thoughts.


  3. Very interesting. I saw her do a Ted talk about vulnerability — actually, my church leadership was presented with that talk once when we were teetering on the edge of something painful that could have turned sideways in a hurry. Ahem.

    Anyway, just one other thought about this . . . recently I was listening to some musicians and composers discuss the thing that happens in their art. This post of yours aligned with that conversation in an interesting way, because what they said is that part of what happens in their art is that a tension must build between what you fear and what you want, and that the resolution of that tension is intensely pleasurable — the more depth to the tension, the more pleasure in its dissolution.

    They were talking about opera (which is a mystery to me!) but I thought, yeah, that’s how stories work, too. You build a need by creating the possibility of something turning out “wrong” and then you deal with that in whatever seems honest and right. I thought of that when I read this piece about how we use our imaginations to create anxiety . . . maybe we somehow need those small exercises in narrative to get ourselves back into a state of relief/happiness with our lives.

    I dunno. It’s an interesting question!


  4. What a beautiful post, Cary. I find myself consumed with such feelings from time to time and always assumed it was some inherent dark side of my personality. I much prefer the idea of those strange imaginative moments serving as a reminder of how desperately I love those closest to me.


  5. Yes, the resolution of tension. Very helpful response. Selfishly because I’m working on a book and your post reminded me to include this element well, and generally because, well, all the great stories are about this — mess and resolution, fall and redemption, death and resurrection. Thanks, Kate.


  6. And then the fun of imagining amazing things for the person we love and immeasurably great connections between us, ad infinitum.

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