Philosophy

Why Is Imagination So Important?

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This is the final installment of my four-part weekly series, Ex Nihilo.

You were born a philosopher. As a child, you spent hours beneath the stars, hypnotized by the transcendent mysteries of the cosmos. But with age came the people who told you it was time to grow up, that it was time to shed your imagination like a used skin so you could focus on more pragmatic concerns. You always secretly thought they were wrong, that you should never trade your fantasies for an ordinary life. But the world would always bear down on you with its facts and figures, wearing away at your soul like a grinding stone until you began to crack and buckle around the edges.

You never stopped using your imagination, but you did begin to keep it to yourself, afraid there might be something wrong with you, afraid you might be defective simply because you’ve always managed to see the world differently. A part of you wondered if the world had been correct, if you would have been better off abandoning artistic pursuits for more worldly endeavors.

You probably asked yourself, “Why is imagination so important?”

Imagination is a lamp set before us to light the way.

The universe is a mystery. Most of its secrets remain untouchable, impenetrable, making it a frightening place where all we can do is stumble around half-blind in the dark. Imagination is the light that dispells this darkness, making the cosmos accessible. It’s a mental framework, a way of perceiving the world. It doesn’t claim to know the answers, but endows us with the creativity necessary to discover them. Through fantasy, the enigmas of life and existence are revealed, making us better equipped to relate to reality.

Imagination is a covenant between the Universe and Man.

It hints at what lies beyond the horizon and assures us that all the universe has to offer can be ours if only we have the courage to pursue our dreams. It’s a promise made to us by a faithful cosmos, and through the years, this promise matures into a confident trust in the unknown, a sure belief that the world is fundamentally ordered and that one day we will know the answers to our deepest questions.

Imagination is a mentor.

It precedes every great discovery. It teaches not through rote memorization or blind adherence to established doctrine, but through hands on experience, passion and dedication, instilling within us a profound yearning for the Truth. It teaches us how to reach beyond the obvious to grapple with things we don’t fully understand, enabling us to cast our minds into the darkness like a fisherman’s net to capture something new.

And once we’ve hooked a mystery, we can use logic and systematic thought to reel it in, for imagination and reason are not contradictory but complimentary forces. Like the synthesis of body and soul, the fusion of imagination and reason is a sum much greater than its parts.

Imagination teaches us to love.

It sparks in our hearts a curiosity that drives us to learn about other people, and it gives us the unique perspective necessary to discover in an ocean of differences all the things we have in common. This understanding blossoms into empathy, so that it becomes possible for us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Imagination facilitates creation.

It allows us to picture things not just as they are, but as they might be. Guided by this internal vision, we can shape and mold the universe according to our designs, so that we become manufacturers as well as consumers of reality.

Imagination is life-giving.

It’s a wellspring of potential energy, a supernova of the heart, an explosive force that illumines and breathes life into the cosmos. It transforms us, orients us toward a more perfect union with the world and its creator.

To turn our backs on fantasy and the imagination is to turn our backs on the Universe, to slowly wither and die, cut off from the cosmic vine that sustains us. We must not let the cynical voices of the world discourage us. Rather we must venture forth into the dark unafraid, so that someday, we can find the answers we seek, so that someday, at long last, we can discover the meaning of our existence.

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What is Time?

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For the first few years of childhood, we exist in a bubble. Inside this bubble, the world is in stasis. We know our place in the universe, and consequently the universe doesn’t seem to be all that scary a place. Then something curious happens.

The world begins to change.

At first, it only seems to change in small ways. We notice the cycles in the sky. We begin to track the passing of the seasons. But the things that really matter, the people we love and the security we find in the bosom of the familiar, they remain fixed, and so we regard these discoveries with only a passing curiosity. Then something uncomfortable happens.

The world changes some more.

The warm inviting cocoon that we were born into begins to break down. We graduate from school. Get a job. The people we love move on. Important landmarks are torn down to make way for shopping malls and apartments. One by one, everything we loved is either rewritten or lost forever.

Before too long, we’re surrounded by a hostile alien world. We start to feel the ravages of age, creeping up on us like deadly vines, and we realize it’s only a matter of time before this cruel existence of ours comes to an unpredictable end. We gaze about, exiles in our own backyard, and we can’t help but wonder, “What is time?”

Time is currency.

Each of us has a fixed balance, deposited at the moment of conception, and everything we do is accompanied by a corresponding withdrawal. Like money, we can choose to spend it wisely, doing worthwhile activities that enrich ourselves and others, or we can fritter it away on wasted hours, sitting around on the couch or laying in bed because we have nothing better to do. We would do well to make the most of what we have, lest we spend our deathbed hours as beggars, scrounging in the gutter for chronological crumbs in our haste to make up for a lifetime of regret.

Time is a veil.

A cosmic curtain, time keeps the past, the present and the future neatly partitioned, allowing us to experience life in manageable bite-sized chunks. Usually this veil is opaque. But every so often, especially as we advance in age, it begins to stretch and pull like taffy, made thin and partially transparent so that in moments of intense reflection, we feel that if only we peer a bit closer, we might yet sight those spectres of the past we’d thought lost years ago.

Time is an ocean.

A vast expanse of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, we navigate its treacherous waters like sailors, attempting to stay afloat for as long as possible while we map the uncharted regions of the future.

Time is motion.

Like a river it flows, sweeping us away in its implacable current, making vagrants of us all. Those who stop and turn back to mourn the increasingly hazy past are dragged by their feet kicking and screaming, torn away from everything and everyone they ever loved.

Time is a fire.

It blazes across the universe, burning everything in its path, reducing the cosmos to ash. Not a one of us escapes its ageless and insatiable maw. It strips us to our souls, consuming the rest in a brilliant infernal flash. As Delmore Schwartz puts it in Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day, “time is the fire in which we burn.”

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Age and the Loss of Innocence

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There are those exceptional moments in life when you experience crystal clarity in thought and purpose, when all is as it should be, when all is right and good with the world. But those moments are rare, are few and far between, and they almost always occur when you’re young. As a child, you didn’t have time to formulate your own beliefs; instead, your world view hinged on the beliefs of others. The innocence of youth is a wonderful carefree time in which the mind and the heart are free from the burdens of autonomous thinking and responsibility.

Then a tragic thing happens. You grow up. You question. You doubt. The world view you subscribed to when you were young no longer seems to apply. You wake up to discover you’ve been abandoned in a hostile world that makes no sense, and you’re forced to fend for yourself, to scrap together bits and pieces of the truth as you find them, to piece together some fragmentary understanding of who you are and why you’re here. You toil in the dark without relief, with only the cold and empty void of unconsciousness for an interlude. You’re faced with the prospect of death somewhere on the horizon, yet have no knowledge of when you’ll meet it face-to-face or what will happen when that day finally comes.

This of course is a necessary thing. Without the impetus to search for the truth, you would lay on your back day and night, unmotivated, listless and without purpose. It is this very emptiness, this very despair that compels you to move forward. You venture on. You hope and you pray that the light you seek at the end of the world exists, that the faith you placed in this unnamed truth was not in vain.

And sooner or later, one way or the other, you’ll find out.

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