I have an overactive imagination.
At least that’s what my grade school teacher told me. I didn’t know what she meant then, but I see her point now. I can fabricate an entire horror film based on one questionable thump in the night. When loved ones are uncharacteristically late, it takes every morsel of effort I have not to start calling the local hospitals. My mind takes an innocuous nugget of information from zero to full-blown crisis in 3.6 seconds.
Side note: I am really fun on airplanes.
This also means that I am a prolific daydreamer. I spend enormous amounts of time and energy imagining a different life. I don’t just mean Wouldn’t it be nice if I lived at the beach? I mean painting long, elaborate scenarios with crystal-clear specificity. In the car, at church, before I go to sleep at night, I’m writing scenes in my ongoing mental novellas about my life if it had worked out with that guy, if I’d gone to graduate school, if I ran marathons.
Though I didn’t realize it then, I began daydreaming as a coping mechanism in my childhood. Like many children, I suspect, when things got really bad at home I would slip away into our backyard shed and imagine myself as one of the Boxcar Children, scrappy and resilient. I recently found a box of my old notebooks, my first forays into writing. My eyes blurred with tears as I looked at my carefully shaped letters, painstakingly spelling out elaborate tales of my imagined lives.
Many years later, I confided in one of my counselors about my daydreaming habits. A good-hearted but blunt woman, she clucked sympathetically before she looked me straight in the eye. “You have to face your reality,” she said clearly. “You are keeping yourself from your healing by living in your head.”
Not long after that, I was stopped cold on one morning subway ride while reading this passage in Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter:
“You are where you are. So be there. Stop trying to protect yourself from the harshness of right now, fleeing into a long fabrication about how it’s going to be one day…Don’t try to leap over yourself. Just accept what it is and be with it, really be with it, because when you do that, you are living in the moment, in the truth.”
Together, these realizations opened up a passageway to healing. I began to watch the trajectory of my thoughts when I faced a stressful situation, mapping their fast-track course away from reality and toward the distantly impossible. I tried to gently corralled them back each time they drifted, which is to say, every thirty seconds or so. I began to notice what I had been missing by pouring my energy into the dramas in my head: the incomparable beauty of the here-and-now.
I found deep wellsprings of healing in the present moment. And yet. I didn’t want there to be a “yet,” of course. I wanted the present moment to offer everything I needed, like I’d been promised. Yes, the present was hard and full and deep and rich but, somehow, not complete. In all my effort to train my brain on reality, it took me a long time to discover what I’d been missing: my imagination.
Yes, I had used it to cope, to deny, to numb myself. But my imagination was also a gift, a beautiful diamond formed out of the coal of my youth. Our imaginations are extraordinary tools that give birth to our writing, our art, our music, the elements that provide depth to our reality. Life without them might be “real,” but it is a hollow, one-dimensional reality. If only we could use them to enrich our reality instead of to escape it.
Lately, I’ve been working for a fantastic non-profit, helping them update their core policies to match their rapid growth. All of these buzzwords we’ve been using – like mission, vision, core values, and strategic plan – are bouncing around my head, mingling with my thoughts about healing and filling the well. I am inspired daily by the creativity and vision – dare I say…imagination? – that these folks are using to grow and change. This is not distant daydreaming; this is taking a long, thoughtful look at reality and seeing the spark of possibility in it. This is envisioning the community they dream of and carefully planning the steps to make it real.
There is great, great power in imagination.
This is like the classic superhero plot, isn’t it? We all have this extraordinary superpower of boundless creativity; the question is how are we going to use it? For good or evil?Are we going to use it to escape from our lives or to enrich them?
Could this same energy we use to withdraw from life also be used to create life?
I am gently easing into this imagining process. For those of us who are healing, there are some pitfalls, I think. For me, imagining my ideal life can quickly lead to shame (why am I not living that life? I am too lazy, too untalented, too ______) orconformation to cultural norms of the ideal life (thin, beautiful, rich). I’ve been burned by failed New Year’s Resolution-esque goals and five-year plans in the past, and I do not want to set myself up for failure.
But I also recognize great power and energy in my imagination. I am watching the tender sprouts of personal and professional dreams emerge, and I want to harness their energy for growth instead of shaming myself for not following them.
All of these thoughts are marinating, slowly and juicily. I’m keeping a notebook of scribbled thoughts about my vision, about the slow discovery of the woman I am becoming. I don’t want knee-jerk reactions or fast-track solutions. I want to use the gift of my “overactive” imagination to paint my journey of growth and then step into that painting to walk it.