Chapter 9 The Task Of The Imagination
ALREADY imagination’s contribution to a productive life has been considered somewhat, and its help has been called on in the matter of making that favorable mental climate which is necessary if we are to produce our best work. But imagination has innumerable other uses, it can be helpful in ways so diverse that the same faculty hardly seems to be in operation in all of them.
In everyday life, we tend to think of the imagination as something which may, perhaps, be spoken of as “useful” to artists of all sorts, but as being almost the opposite of useful in the lives of practical men and women. To use one’s imagination, generally, is thought of as taking a holiday, as allowing the wits to go wool-gathering, the mind to relax and sun itself. After indulging it – for we commonly think of the exercise of the imagination as being in some way an indulgence – we may return refreshed to the commonplace, or we may find we have lost time, missed contacts, got out of step with our companions and helpers: in short, suffered for allowing one part of the mind free play.
As a consequence we look warily at the imagination, often seeking to check it, or, in some extreme cases, even eradicate it. That it can be of immense benefit in the most prosaic affairs is an idea at which many readers will balk. But that is because they do think of the imagination as a faculty which always wanders unchecked, which must be permitted to make its own rules and occasions, which is incapable of being directed, and, to a great extent, controlled – put at the service of the reason and the will. Thus controlled and directed, it becomes the mature creative imagination, the spiritual faculty of which Joubert speaks.
But consider a few of the many things which it can usefully do for us: it can help us to stand away from ourselves somewhat, holding the emotions and prejudices which often keep us from seeing clearly well in hand. By so doing we may find that we are thwarting our own best interests constantly, and can replace the disadvantageous activities – still in the imagination – by others which will bring about happier results.
It can be turned on the character of an opponent or an uncooperative “helper” while we study him as an author might study a character whom he hopes to place in a book. We can get clues to his motives, and thereafter watch to see whether we have been right about them, thus saving ourselves from such mistakes as being too brusque with a sensitive person, or too laxly indulgent with another who will exploit us if we give him or her the opportunity.
Nor does this begin to exhaust the ways in which imagination, instead of betraying us into reverie and resignation to unsatisfactory conditions – instead, even, of being employed merely as a means of recreation – can contribute to the making of a good life. Working as far as possible under orders from the will, and hand-in-hand with reason, it can explore new fields for our efforts, can bring back to us some of our original freshness towards our work which we have lost by fatigue and routine; it can even perform such a severely practical function for us as to discover new markets for our wares, or new ways in which to use old talents.
These ideas are worth a little closer examination here, and later the insertion of some exercises in using the imagination.
We need not belong to that group which, as we say, “can only learn by experience.” Having discovered that much of our dread of engaging in new activity comes from unconquered fear of the pain which we formerly met when we began to go forward, we can decide that some of our “trial-and-error” attempts at managing life shall go on in the mind, in the imagination, where it is, to all intents, painless. We can learn to look ahead imaginatively, and so save ourselves from blunders, ineffectuality, loss of energy and time.
First of all, we can use imagination to see ourselves and our work in some perspective.
Everyone knows how a child identifies himself utterly with all he owns and does, with all those who care for him. He is outraged if asked to share his possessions, the breaking of a beloved toy is a tragedy, if it rains on the day when a picnic was planned one would think the sun could never shine for him again. If a mother or nurse leaves him while he is awake, he has been most treacherously betrayed. In fact, much early education has as its one goal the teaching of the little egotist to see himself in somewhat truer relation to his world. More or less successfully, each of us has had to learn this lesson; but it is almost never fully understood. To our last days there is still a trace of that childish egotism in us – sometimes so very much more than a trace that an adult suffers, resents, sulks, and complains in a way only too reminiscent of the nursery.
There is no success which does not entail a relationship between the individual and others. (That artist who “works only to please himself” is a chimera, as mythical a beast as the hippogriff.) Since that is so, there will be occasions on which it is immensely important for us to see ourselves clearly, and in scale with those around us. Each of us at some time is in a position to have to say to himself “Here am I; here is the work I do; here are those I hope to help and please by this work.” Imagination can help us to stand back and see that relationship in perspective, can analyze its parts and suggest to us the full scope of what we have undertaken.
The infantile adult can never see himself at one remove; even less can he see his work or the object he has made quite as it is, undistorted by the over-estimation of personal pride, or the under-estimation of humility and fear. Consequently he is never in a position to know just where his contribution does go in the scheme of his world, and is at the mercy of the reports of friends or strangers. Even here he is bewildered; however plain the words may be, however just the estimate which is given him, he will not hear exactly what is said because he cannot bring to the moment his undivided and unemotional attention. His intense preoccupation with his own hopes and desires spoils him as a recording instrument. He cannot benefit by good advice or sound criticism; nor, on the other hand, can he know when such advice is mistaken, and the criticism not expert. By looking, in imagination, first at himself, then at the work he wants to do, then at the audience to whom he hopes to appeal; and, finally, by bringing all these elements into relation with each other, he could keep his courage from being undermined, his mind unconfused by conflicting advice, his estimate of his performance just.
Now, to identify ourselves too long with work we do is a bad mistake, and a mistake through which we can be hurt and hampered. The past few years have taught us much about the folly of so identifying ourselves with our children that they are rendered incapable of leading independent lives. The mother who clings to her adult (or even adolescent) child, suffering with him, making his decisions, undergoing humiliation on his account, unable to live her own life fully if he is not leading the sort of life she covets for him, meddling with his affairs, dictating his professional and social interests, is no longer looked upon as the sum of maternal love and wisdom.
While we may not always practice as wisely as we should, few men and women today consider the complete identification of themselves with their children as either praiseworthy or desirable. We have to that extent learned perspective about one of the most fundamental relations of life. We know that our work as parents is to do all in our power to equip the child to live a happy, healthy adult life, to put up no unnecessary barriers before his independent activities, to leave him free to select his friends and to form his own judgments as soon as possible. What is more, we know that it is desirable that every adult, whether parent or child, should have his own interests, and that only the possession of such interests will guarantee that no unwholesome interference with the life of another will take place. Further, no one believes for a moment that because a saner understanding of a parent’s functions is replacing the old dictatorship, which was tyrannical even when it was motivated by deep affection, the love between mother or father and child is in any way decreasing.
The analogy of any finished piece of work with a child is very close: each has to be carried, cherished, nourished as part of one’s very self during the early stages. But with full growth there comes a time when each should have its independent identity.
If we intend to get all we can from living, we must learn when to go on from one task to the next. Even the most productive of us could contribute more than be does; our output is about halved because we do not learn to separate ourselves from the things that are done and put our energy into the work which is ahead. Instead we turn and watch the fortunes of what we have lately been engrossed in. To some extent this is inevitable; we need to know the history and fortunes of our finished work in so far as we can learn anything valuable from them. But here is a place where the average man can learn from the genius. Abundance, as Edith Wharton has said, is the sign of the true vocation; and that is so in any branch of life. Your true genius – whether a Leonardo, a Dickens, a Napoleon, an Edison – is always going on. Versatility and abundance are not, as we are sometimes told, the signs of the mediocre workman.
When they are present in a mediocre man, they are, on the contrary, the very things he has in common with the great men of his profession.
So accustomed are we to doing a piece of work, and then standing still to contemplate what happens to it, that we constantly wonder at those who do not make the same error. We even, erroneously, believe that they must “drive themselves” relentlessly in order to accomplish what they manage to do. Now, nothing of the sort is true – or it is not necessarily true. What has happened is that the time, the energy, the attention which in lesser men goes into waiting for approval, listening to comments, wondering whether some item or other might have been better done, is going forward and opening up new paths. It is not at all that the healthfully prolific men and women are complacent, or oblivious to real criticism; they know that if anything pertinent is said they will hear it. Experience has taught them that we are never deaf to what truly concerns us. What they have learned is not to wait to hear comment; and so their lives are twice as full and satisfactory as those of us who cannot learn when to let the results of our thought and labor, our mental offspring, go out to lead their own lives.
Imagination can bring us to understand how such sane workers operate, and suggest ways in which we can imitate them.
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