Unyielding Imagination


Artwork: Dane Chisholm (from Essays from Near and Far)

It is often said that without the rule of law humanity would descend into chaos. This is perhaps true, but it is not laws themselves that keep people from such chaos. More fundamental to cohesive humanity are hope and empathy. Hope for our future and empathy for others are the main reasons we obey the law – they are the real glue that holds societies together. Hope and empathy are both born of imagination. Alfred Adler, who founded the school of individual psychology, said: “We cannot think, feel, will or act without the perception of a goal.” Before one can hope, one must imagine something worth hoping for. Before one can empathise, one must imagine what another feels. Before we can create a better world, we must first imagine one.

The word ‘imagine’ comes from the Latin imaginare: to form an image of. Essentially, imagination is the ability to form mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceived through sight, hearing or other senses. Imagination helps us create meaning from experience and understanding from knowledge. It is the fundamental faculty by which humans make sense of the world and construct a purposeful existence.

But the word ‘imagine’ also comes from the Latin imaginari: to picture oneself.This second component provides another glimpse into the elementary relevance of imagination. Through it, we create unique personal realms in our mind, made up of elements derived from our sensory perceptions of the shared world. In effect, we create our own version of reality, our own world. People spend much of their lives wondering, imagining, who they really are – many make their greatest contributions to the shared world as a by-product of this search.

So in imagining, we discover our self – we become more aware of who we are. But it is also necessary to compare that constructed self with our impressions formed of others, as the point of departure for the dynamic of empathy to emerge.

Imagination is instinctive, but it is also a learnt and practised skill. This is not a contradiction. William James, for example, argued that we have an instinct for learning, and that one component of that process is the imagination. We understand its importance to children and use story-telling as basic training for the imagination, evoking real and created worlds via description, using words, actions and images. It seems less importance is placed on exercising the imagination as we approach adulthood. ‘Growing up’ often entails giving up such childish past times.

Could it be that our modern lifestyles, which allow us to increasingly outsource our imagination via a plethora of devices, from big-screen televisions to smart phones, are causing us to stop using and unlearn this essential ability? And if so, are we permitting a distortion of some of the most elemental parts of our lives: from sex and relationships, to our perceptions of the worlds of others; from shared culture, to our memory, personal identity and sense of being?




Whilst travelling Latin America I was in awe of the ever-present person standing in their doorway or sitting in the street, in their own world, yet watching the outside world happen around them – not something you see so often in urban Australia. It should be the easiest thing in the world, but in my daily life I find it harder and harder to not be doing something. I get uptight and feel I am losing time and being unproductive if I allow myself to slow and do nothing. No longer a human being, have I become a ‘human doing?’

For a growing proportion of humanity – living in increasingly urbanised environments – there is less time, space and peace to assist the imagination. There are so many distractions. Rarely do we need to entertain ourselves, we have television, internet, phones, advertising, traffic – I can’t even sit at a café on my own anymore and stare at the world going past. I habitually reach for my smart phone to save me from awkwardness – I might have an email, something might have happened on Facebook or in the news. More than once have I found a colleague’s smart phone embarrassingly forgotten on the toilet roll holder in the cubicle at work as I sit down and get mine out of my pocket. I sometimes tell myself I am multi-tasking or utilising ‘dead time’ to get things done. Unable or unwilling to fight the intrusion and constant distraction of the millions of things happening online, I am already losing my ability to day-dream.

Doing nothing and letting our minds wander is something we have been doing for a long time and for good reason. A recent study by Dr Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman from the University of Central Lancashire (cited in Science Daily, Jan. 9, 2013) found that people are more creative and productive when forced to slow down, to daydream and undertake boring tasks. In fact, they found that the more the scope for daydreaming was reduced, the more creativity also diminished.

Dr Andrew Campbell, psychology lecturer at University of Sydney, also believes that learning to calm the brain and escape distractions is essential for creative thinking. The brain needs “lulls” to find inspiration and new ideas. Creativity, another child of imagination, is not simply the maker of arts – it is a generator of invention, problem solving and active change. Campbell argues that whilst we may be speeding up our multi-tasking ability, this doesn’t actually improve learning, because we never focus on anything long enough. We are effectively skim-reading everything, whereas if we focussed on fewer things we would take more of them in. Doubtless a thirty year old today has absorbed hundreds of times more images of sex, war, poverty and other cultures than their peers living a few decades ago, but they have all been ‘skim-read’ and few meaningful connections have been established between these images.




Once upon a time, teenagers had to imagine naked bodies, intimacy and sex. Their fantasy-images were largely of their own making, framed by their personal values, perceptions, tastes, and desires, and shaped by the people and events in their daily lives. Gradually their imaginations were further sparked by the underwear pages of the Best and Less catalogue and those magazines that pretended they were about sport although most readers got stuck on the pages exhibiting the latest swimwear. But our imaginations had to work to uncover the rest. Today, most teenagers carry a mobile hard core porn device in their pocket or bag, full of endless and instant substitutes for the creations of their own mind.

Now such fantasies come pre-packaged and free to every smart phone before the owner has a chance to consider what their own personal fantasies might have been. Internet porn has replaced parents, teachers and friends as the main provider of sexual education. There is a vested interest in the material being shocking: shock gets attention; attention gets hits; and hits determine advertising dollars. Only ever a click away, the internet is constant and reliable, but it is not a person with compassion who cares for their students and has a burden of responsibility for what they teach. Empathy and hope, always silent partners with good education, rarely visit this virtual world. Unlike our own internal creations, internet sex is externally manufactured to make money, not for love or pleasure, and must to some extent manipulate consciousness, conceal reality, and stifle imagination.

But this point generalises beyond internet porn. For as we flee from solitary contemplation we lose the sense of who we really are but also who others are. U.S. comedian Louis C.K. recently told talk show host Conan O’Brien that what we are doing is we are blocking out any negative or lonely feelings, never truly embracing those emotions or working through them. He went on to argue that when you let yourself feel sad, your body has natural ways of dealing with it, which actually make you feel better. Your body meets sadness with its anti-bodies and eventually creates a true profound happiness, but because we don’t want that first little bit of sadness or loneliness that may come as we sit on our own at a café, we push it away instantly with the distraction offered by “smart phone therapy.” In effect, he claimed, we disallow sadness, but in doing so we lose the opportunity for developing a real, deeper happiness.




The irony of this increasing loss of imagination is that we now live in a world in which more than ever we need the guide of the imagination in order to survive. Like it or not, we live in a globalised world. We are now inextricably linked to most other human beings on the planet through a global economy, media, international relations and environmental degradation that refuses to be contained by lines on maps – some of our simplest actions can affect distant people we will never know. In today’s world we are no longer isolated or ignorant to the rest of the world – we often know when famines grip, bombs explode and the desperate flee, no matter how distant. Empathy has allowed us to function in groups, ultimately forming communities then societies, and enabled us to be more than self-obsessed individuals. In the globalised world, humankind is now effectively one huge society made up of complex relationships that must function not just as separate units, but as a whole. In other words, it is now necessary that we empathise with distant others we will likely never meet, for our lives are now in some way interconnected. But we need a robust imagination to even conceive of this whole, let alone to equip this imagined whole with purpose.

But such purpose also requires memory, and memory itself requires the imagination. We re-create the past by forming images, sounds and feelings wholly within our mind. Without memory it is impossible to know ourselves or our environment – our identity. Without collective memory we cannot develop cultures and we cannot know progress.

Culture equates to communal identity. It requires imagination and human interaction for the transmission of ideas and feelings. Dignity is a by-product of a strong culture and it is essential for challenging power and the status quo. Many technological advances not only provide for our imagining to be done for us, but also facilitate isolation over interaction. Television, for example, only permits communication in one direction. It isolates and packages a limited set of ideas and emotions for our consumption. Social media at least, allows two-way interaction, but again within a defined alternative reality. Rather than facilitating a revelation of identity, many of today’s tools and activities provide a means to erase or distort it, an ever-easier pathway towards a sterilization of consciousness and cultural alienation.

But much of our truth about the distant world we rely on the media, mostly commercial media. But cold sterile reports are not enough to enable understanding – they merely provide a launch pad for the imagination to create the images, sounds, smells, joy and suffering of those worlds we do not know. How can we empathise without living a moment of another’s life, albeit within our minds? There are rules and standards as well as vested interests that confine and restrict the media’s communication of reality – at best channelling and shrinking the truth. When a frame becomes too great the picture begins to disappear.

If we outsource imagination, the space within our mental environment automatically fills with entertainment, news sound-bites and the thousands of advertising messages we receive each day. We run the risk of allowing economic and political interests (money and power) to act as a substitute for our imagination, to create our perception of reality for us, which in turn determine with whom we empathise and for what we hope. Indeed, sometimes interests within media and information networks actively attempt to steer or block the imagination, which in turn stop it giving birth to hope or empathy. This is why asylum seekers are referred to as ‘illegals’, ‘boats’, ‘the border problem’ and a list of other labels that de-humanise, making it more difficult to identify the ‘me’ in the people involved and find a pathway to empathy. It follows, as we spend more time in such virtual or contrived realities, that our own individually created reality will increasingly become something foreign, and as we often view ‘foreign’ as something to be feared, attacked and lied about, then very quickly we become suspicious of our own humanity.

History shows we can be desensitised to the circumstances of others and that empathy can be eroded to the point that otherwise reasonable people can inflict great suffering in good conscience. Without imagination we define ourselves as passengers of history, not creators, and as passengers we will justify the worst failures of humanity. As we face increasing pressure due to growing populations, inequality and ecological concerns, empathy will be vital in the search for workable solutions.




Imagination is the first and the last bastion of individual freedom. Indeed, many an incarcerated and tortured soul has survived on nothing more. We need it to interpret the world around us, and to challenge it. As the co-operation of imaginare and imaginari suggest, if we allow our imagination to decline or be substituted by other entities, we not only allow our personal image of the world around us to be shaped, we also leave vulnerable our image of ourselves.

Imagination is free and expansive, it lacks impeding boundaries. This freedom is one of the reasons that communicative forms which harness the imagination can place us closer to a true understanding than those that do not. An anonymous piece of graffiti can say more about a political issue than a politician avoiding questions for ten minutes on The 7:30 Report; a Michael Leunig cartoon can say more about the war in Iraq than weeks of reporting; Picasso’s Guernica has led many to discover hidden truths of the Spanish Civil War; and Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist gave us as much insight into post 9-11 Australia as nightly news and current affairs programs.

Polish writer and journalist Ryszard Kapuściński understood that one cannot have understanding without imagination. He believed you must live and experience what you report, to penetrate it as deeply as possible. He also believed in silva rerum (the forest of things). There are two versions of his work; the original report; then sometime later he used imagination to make sense of the forest of things, “to give shape and coherence”. This approach allowed Kapuściński to express the reality of what he lived through, the feelings, reflections, complexities of the soul. Unlike standard journalistic reports – still and lifeless, a list of facts and numbers that merely scratches at the surface of reality — Kapuściński’s writing is alive, allowing the reader’s imagination to engage the senses and begin to see, hear, smell and feel the truth. It begs the question: Is information equivalent to truth until one has digested it and imagined its meaning?

Combining information with imagination, we begin to create understanding. Not everyone has the privilege or good fortune of travelling or getting to know different parts of the world, but this needn’t be a barrier to acts of imagination, in which, wherever we are, we can begin to understand the circumstances of others and what obligations these may place upon us. It would be fair to say for example, that in general those who have put more effort into understanding the world of an asylum seeker have found more empathy and ultimately compassion for its victims. Empathy reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be like it is. Things can be different. After all, what use is empathy without hope that horror and poverty are not inevitable? Without imagining a better world and trying in our own ways to make it possible, we empathise with impunity.

A world in which we allow imagination to be outsourced, promises emotionless love, peaceful war, smooth efficient pathways to nowhere in particular and a homogenised culture cleansed of memory. A dormant imagination would seem to generate resignation, conceal reality and convert sensations into information and services.

And yet, we humans have the ability to imagine a future rather than merely accept the one we’ve been given. It is something of this eternal need for imagination to spawn memory, empathy and hope – even in the face of persistent horror and despair – that I think Pablo Neruda was speaking of when in concluding The World’s End, he gave us the words:


I died with every death,

so I was able to live again

bound by my testimony

and by my unyielding hope.



This essay is taken from Essays from Near and Far. Order it HERE with free postage throughout Oz.

It was first published by Island Magazine