Imagine that you’re spending the summer in a villa on Lake Geneva in 1816. The weather is terrible – it will become known as ‘the year without a summer’. In April the year before, a little-known volcano in Indonesia, Mount Tambora, erupted so powerfully that its ash cloud reached almost 27 miles high, into the Earth’s stratosphere, and it’s still affecting the world’s climate over a year later.
The days are dark, cold and rainy. Stuck inside the villa for the most part, your host Lord Byron suggests that, to pass the time, everyone there should come up with a good ghost story.
This is easier said than done – writers usually work from inspiration, not on command. Then one night you all spend an evening of discussion about the nature of life, and whether a corpse could be reanimated by applying enough electricity, based on the discoveries of Luigi Galvani just a few decades previously.
The gloomy weather and macabre discussion infect your thoughts. Perhaps you have a vision such as young Mary Shelley did:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
That imagined scenario prompted her to produce one of the most original horror stories ever written, Frankenstein.
What a rich life we lead when we use our imagination.
As kids we have nothing but our imaginations; we haven’t experienced much by the age of four, or seven, or even ten, so we make up wildly creative worlds to play in.
If we retain that capacity for crazy ideas and creative mental leaps, as adults we can come up with amazing concepts.
In the 1820s, Charles Babbage created his Difference Engine, basically a mechanical calculator, but it was the forerunner of our modern computers.
J.R.R. Tolkien created such a powerful alternate world, Middle-Earth, in his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories that he continues to inspire generations of fantasy writers and readers to this day.
Albert Einstein famously developed the theory of relativity by first imagining what it would be like to travel so fast that he could catch up with a beam of light.
Several years ago at work I was on a committee to organize the annual Appreciation Day for staff. The morning schedule always included a team-building activity based on that year’s overall theme. One of the most successful activities we ever devised was inspired by the Harry Potter theme: build a dragon.
All the materials were provided. Since the activity was only 30 minutes long, we decided to give the teams a head start by demonstrating how to build the core of the dragon quickly with shoe boxes and tape; after that they could create the rest of the dragon as they wished. We had a big table strewn with all kinds of decorative materials, from pipe cleaners to feather boas, for them to use. There were no rules; we’d be judging the dragons based entirely on how cool and interesting they looked!
After the demo, we waited nervously to see if the teams could come to a consensus on how they wanted their dragon to look, or devolve into arguments, or decide the whole thing was too lame.
The room quickly erupted in sound and motion. It was clear that the teams were fully engaged and having an absolute blast.
When time was up, the creativity blew our committee away. Each dragon was completely different, and some departed entirely from the body mock-up we’d offered. We did award a prize, to much cheering, but I’m not sure it mattered because the staff had already enjoyed themselves so much.
In the past year, people were extremely creative during the pandemic lock-downs because there wasn’t much else to do while we, much like Mary Shelley and her companions in 1816, were stuck inside, but there’s no reason we can’t continue to think that way as the world slowly begins to move on.
There’s an event coming up this Saturday in New York City called the Day of Imagination. It’s described as “an ode to idealism — a space for the presentation of the most thrilling, ambitious, wildest “dream projects” of musical artists from across the world” – and it gave me the idea for this blog post.
While we’re still dealing with the ongoing effects of the pandemic and the continual bad news in the media, how about taking a break for our own personal Day of Imagination?
Regularly taking the time to engage our imaginations is healthy, even critical. It’s well known by science that stretching our brains is something we need to do, especially as we get older. For example, as reported by CNN, a study by neurologists in 2015 found that “people who engaged in artistic activities… were 73% less likely to have memory and thinking problems, such as mild cognitive impairment, that lead to dementia.”
If you took an entire day to just live in the realm of your imagination, what would you do?
Would you buy some materials and paint a picture, or go out into nature and photograph all kinds of little details you’ve never noticed before?
Would you read a book in a genre that’s new for you? Play with Lego blocks? Do some free-form writing in a journal? Start that vacation scrapbook you’ve been planning for years?
Would you, just for fun, do something way outside your wheelhouse? Maybe you might try your hand at writing a ghost story, or a horror story?
Albert Einstein, in an interview for the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, said, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Step away from the troubles of the world for a day, whether it’s by yourself, or with friends or family, and spend a day being like children again. Sometimes they’re smarter than we are.
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