Imagination As Love

Kid ImaginationImagination is the power of image-creation. It is a living fire in the mind, for we are image-using creatures. Indeed, all our dealings and deliberations are the chasing – or the fleeing – of some picture we aspire or dread to enter into. Images are the way we understand the world, the way we sort what is desirable from what is to be avoided, the way we associate words with each other and words with deeds and words with the world. Words without pictures are without meaning. Images are the incarnation of language, the taking on of flesh.

This picture-processing begins in childhood. A child knows that words must go with something, they must belong to something. Like “spoon” belongs to the long, metal shovel that puts ripe, strong bananas between the teeth. Like “flowers” belongs to the cotton-white clusters that house the bees. Like “mommy” belongs to the soft, big person who knows all of the answers to everything.

SharkThe young people harried and hurried on every side by the world rushing to plot a plan, a course for all their days, they know it: how “actress” means they will strut the red carpet with the eyes of the world on their shimmering gown and their thick scarlet lipstick. How “secretary” means they will sit behind a little oak desk and speak in polished terms over the wires to disgruntled customers and important potential clients. How “engineer” means they will masterfully disassemble and gut the insides of automobiles, computer hard drives or spaceships. Based on the little that they know of the world, they chart their ways in hopes they will fall in with the image they saw once on the cover of National Geographic and loved: the sleek-skinned deep sea diver caressing the rubbery shark, the chic, fairytale couple kissing on the bridge over the Seine.

Red Carpet
A man or a woman who has not learned image-making is forever confined to understand the world through the images presented to him or her by life as it rushes by in its haphazard, careless way. Without imagination, she will not know until her own way takes her there what it is like to be an actress, a secretary, an engineer. She will not, perhaps, understand the possibility of soul-destroying preludes to the red carpet, the way she might have to give up everything she has for the eyes of the world on her mincing steps. Without imagination, how will she know that a secretary is more than the name of an employment position, that it is what she brings to it, that there are so very many pictures to go with a word?

Ten years in AfghanistanWithout imagination, a man will not know what it is like to be the parent of a runaway child or of a young boy slaughtered in an unjust war. He will not know what it is to be sick with hunger so that the smell of break cooking is dizzying. He will not know what it is to lose two legs, to lose his dream job, to lose his one true love. He will not know what it is to be the only survivor of a bombed village in an arid desert country. He will not know what it is like to be old and dying in a hospital with no one to visit you or even send cheap flowers.

Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed,” warned Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter. “By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”

This, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments for the transcendent value of literature. A man who has not lived any of those things, when he reads the words of one who has, can know suddenly some part of what it is to walk in another pair of shoes that look nothing like his own. A man who has cultivated and nurtured imagination in himself, though he be young and untried and little-travelled, can yet know the world deeply and love it all the harder. And God so loved the world.

In recent days, I have been reading Anton Chekhov’s Complete Short Stories. It would be a waste of breath to remark that the man was a masterful teller of tales. That fact is well-known. But something else that he was, which gives his stories much of their value, was a fabulous image-maker. His stories are from a century past in a country across the globe, but they speak vividly of the same human spirit we encounter around us every day, that we “joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”

One of these stories in particular has served for mmiserye as a stellar example of the importance of image-making to love. It is, of course, not certain that this story will act on everyone else in quite the same way, but it is beyond question that something else will.

The story is Misery. It is short and grim and sad and you can read it online here. It is just a sketch, an incomplete and unresolved look into another life. But when I read it, I cried as though at the end of a long, fully-developed work of tragedy. Such is the power of imagination.

Iona Potapov is a cab-driver in the snowy twilight of evening in long-ago Russia. His son has died and he is a poor man, a working-man, with no leisure for sorrow or for talk. He must load up his sledge with hasty, arrogant people all night and taxi them to and fro in the chill wind. Their schedules are brimming and they are not polite, but he is a man sick with grief and he must tell of it, though none should listen.

“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off.

“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the right! You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips…. Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

“What?” inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”

“H’m! What did he die of?”

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

“Who can tell! It must have been from fever…. He lay three days in the hospital and then he died…. God’s will.”

“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! drive on!… ” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box…. Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white.

Iona is not necessarily a sentimental man, not necessarily a good man even. He is just a man who has lost a son. You have seen them before. And yet, have you really seen them? Have you really dedicated your powers to putting yourself in their place? So as to love?

And God so loved the world.

That He gave His only Son.

77 thoughts on “Imagination As Love

  1. Do you know how extraordinary you are? Just…wow. This is one of the most extraordinary testimonies I have ever read outside of the bible itself (and I’ve read and heard alot) and possibly the most unique essay about love and vision in one. I love your choices of illustration and what how you used them. I mean, the whole piece is powerful and says a couple of really striking things. But the climax is the climax to it all, and what means you used to get us there!

    You’re gifted.

    And here I was expecting a cutesy little piece about creativity.

    You made me remember, how good God in a way I’m certain not to forget.

    A big thank-you, for all of it. Just….wow.

    1. *blushes*

      Thank you for your kind and encouraging words. It is not my story, or my truth. It is THE story, and THE truth. I can’t take credit for that. 🙂

      Blessings to you and yours!

      1. You are right, but God gave you a gift and you used it in service today Bryana. So God bless you. 🙂

        The way you assembled these components is special, the means given to you by the almighty. We all have been given something.

        And yes, it is THE story and THE truth. But people communicate it in a variety of ways. This particular way seeps into your spirit.

        So you are a wonderful vessel, built to do just that (by way of your ability). So you are credited in that way, not as the STORY or the TRUTH. But a means by which people will get it quite powerfully.

        I certainly did. 🙂 Thanks again!

  2. Beautifully written, inspiring! You reminded me of when my grandson, then two, asked me to come play, while I lay lazily on the sofa watching some meaningless trifle on the television. “I don’t know how to play anymore,” my forlorn reply. Use your ‘madginashun, Nana!”
    Yes, I got up and played.
    —and so glad for it.

  3. Beautiful write. As an educator, one of the greatest gifts you can give a child is their use of imagination and wonder. To explore with awe and applaud their miracles; I am blessed to be a small part of what the universe has in store for them…

  4. Very nice. Love the picture of the woman and her child. Yes, one of the things that is difficult to even hear about are those who don’t get visited in the hospital by family or friends. My sis (who works as a nurse) always tells me about how so many there are lonely or feeling burdensome to their families. Sigh.

  5. Pingback: Machholz's Blog
      1. It is! I think that’s why our hearts resound when we see it here on earth in story or picture….we KNOW on some level that that’s coming….and how it should be!


  6. Wonderful dear.. simply loved reading it… God bless you and increase your talent, so that you can reach the world with your words.

  7. Imagination is a wonderful thing and helps you in all aspects of life. The creativity it takes to write my science fiction stories enables me think outside the box during my day job a lot easier. Nice post.

  8. This was beautiful. What a poetic and thoughtful piece. As a writer I adore imagination and when I see young minds growing up without it I wish that me giving them just a hint of creativity will drive them to embrace their childhood and let their imagination run wild.

  9. Very interesting thank you. Your words had me thinking about thinking in pictures and how difficult it is/can be for one who does it, to fathom those who do not. I just finished reading another to Temple Grandin’s books, where she attempts to broaden her own horizons through optimizing her own beliefs. I’ll come back and read again later to ensure that my thoughts weren’t simply triggers of association and that I have garnered all that you intended in your article. Have a good morning!

  10. well written. without imagination, there is nothing. congrats on being freshly pressed. oh by the way, i love Checkov too. One of my favourite short story is ‘The Bet’

    1. Thanks for reading and taking time to share your thoughts.

      Chekhov is great, isn’t he? — even if a little crippled by his narrowing atheism. He saw only half of the Story, but he retold it very well.

  11. Hi Birna,
    Nice writing…can I give a comment …..if you please dont thing I am critical .Imagination is good for creativity but to face and handle real life events we need to know reality, and a thinking guided by facts and commonsense rather than imagination.

    1. I agree with you. However God tells us to have a VISION , which of course has to be Biblical, because without the vision, which I think our writer here calls imagination, we will perish. i am a designer of crochet patterns and before I have a pattern, I have to have a vision as to how the end result will look like. But you are totally correct, people in their depravity have all kinds of imaginations, visions and hallucinations. Hope that clarified the point taken. Be blessed.

    2. Thanks for your comment, I do appreciate your input and your thoughts. I think we may be using the word, “imagination” differently, though. I am using it to mean the power of mind to create “visions” (as Beate said), and to understand others with compassion as they go through experiences we have never had the opportunity to face. This kind of imagination is not just about creativity, but is really based on facts and reality — just not always reality we have experienced firsthand. Obviously, firsthand experience belongs in another category entirely and gives even deeper understanding.

  12. Great post and congrats on the Freshly pressed. I love Chekhov, but I’ve never read his short stories. Thanks for the pointer. It’s a great point you make concerning the value of literature as a way of promoting understanding and therefore, potentially peace, in those who’s experiences don’t encompass those of ell their fellow human beings. I believe in the power and importance of imagination, and you highlight one of its key values…thank you.

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment, Harula. Chekhov writes masterfully of human nature, doesn’t he? — although I often feel he manages to tell only one half of that story, due to his own grim materialism. He tells the sad story of humankind in all our pitiable helplessness and weakness and wretchedness. And he manages to portray us as almost lovable, in spite of everything. 🙂

  13. Beautiful and powerful thoughts. I believe the imagination is the key to life. Hope and dreams are brought to life in the mind and heart. I enjoy the use of story and old wisdom to make your point. Thank you.

    1. It is shocking, isn’t it? It is inexplicable and fascinating and is the one thing that has turned the whole globe on its head.

      In the words of my favorite poet, G.K. Chesterton,

      “Hunger is hard and time is tough,
      But bless the beggars and kiss the kings
      For hope has broken the heart of things,
      and nothing can ever be praised enough.”

    1. Yes, poor, dear Russia has been through a lot of misery, and a lot of sorrow, hasn’t she? Also, there is an inevitable sorrow that comes with atheism and materialism in a world where children die and boys get their faces blown off in maniacal, absurd wars, and women are brutalized and people are selfish and callous and misunderstand each other. Because if what we see is all there is, existence can be a fairly horrible thing.

      Chekhov was an atheist, and a sensitive, observant, honest man, who saw all of this wretchedness and wrote of it exactly as he saw it: sorrowfully and with wry, grim humor.

      I believe he saw only half of the story. But he wrote of that half uncommonly well. For that, I value his contributions to my own imagination.

      But also, I look ahead to the untold part of the story, and take comfort in the World’s Great Lover, who came for us anyway, and infused wild hope into the planet.

  14. A good read and to the point. I wrote a small blog on Pablo the Great Artist which you might find enjoyable. If you get chance give it a read and let me know what you think of it.

    1. Thanks for your time and your words — so glad you found some consolation here. Don’t let the narrowness of your vision bring you down: we can see such a little part of the Story.

      The World’s Great Lover has come for us and the world is wild with hope.

  15. Hi Bryana,

    Enjoyed the lovely post. Imagination is lovely, isn’t it? Reading has always been exciting as we can imagine simultaneously.You have expressed beautifully 🙂 Congrats on FP !!!

  16. Wow, this is such an amazing, powerful post that I welled up while I read it. Your writing is deeply moving and beautiful. I feel better today for having read this. Thank you.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  17. Reblogged this on WORTHY BOOKS & THINGS and commented:
    “This, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments for the transcendent value of literature. A man who has not lived any of those things, when he reads the words of one who has, can know suddenly some part of what it is to walk in another pair of shoes that look nothing like his own. A man who has cultivated and nurtured imagination in himself, though he be young and untried and little-travelled, can yet know the world deeply and love it all the harder. And God so loved the world.”

    That is perhaps my favorite excerpt from her beautiful essay Imagination As Love found over at Having Decided To Stay where the author, Bryanna Johnson skillfully shares her intricate and thoughtful perspective on life and literature from her own vivid imagination. God’s grace and love spills from her writing, overflowing like the living waters that Jesus offered the woman at the well. And we are invited to come and drink. Cheers!

  18. Bryana,
    Beautifully written. I am inspired to love, to let God’s love paint the world around me and see as he sees. I am not gifted with the words to express how this touched me, so I simply say thank you.

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