A fascinating discovery in child psychology is that though children know that imaginary beings are not real, they are still a powerful and meaningful presence in their lives. In other words, though a child knows that an imaginary friend is not real, they are still able to maintain a meaningful relationship with that character. Though a child may not believe literally that their teddy-bear is real, that St Nicholas lives in the North Pole, that their deceased grandmother is still with them, or that their Guardian Angel is watching over them - they still are able to believe these things in a quite remarkable and wonderful way. A child is able to have one foot in their imagined world while having another foot in reality without feeling any tension between them both.
We would be foolish parents if we admonished children for not living in reality because the child has this wonderful ability to walk an illuminated path between imagination and the real world. For example, if you were to kick your child’s teddy bear across the kitchen floor because it is just an inanimate toy your child would rightfully become distressed because his love for that toy is grounded in an intelligent imagination. If you insisted that Santa did not exist or that there was no god, a child may become upset for reasons that your literal view of the world does not comprehend. This is because children and adults are imaginative and not literal creatures. If you only took life literally you would be reduced to an animal concerned only with survival.
Unlike children, adults keep their imaginative life hidden from the world behind a paper-thin veneer of reason and logic. Scratch the surface of anyone’s adult life and you find it is built on the stones gathered in the imaginative world of childhood. Your inner self is the same as it was when you were six years old. You are still the same person seeing the world in similar ways.
Imagination is so vital to everyday life that if you lost it you would become trapped in a meaningless world of repetitive ritualistic behaviour. This is because imagination is the lubricant that allows your mental life to flow. It is necessary to conduct all sorts of everyday mental tasks such as planning your day, thinking about what you are going to do next, calculating a sum, recalling an event from yesterday, visualising a scene, or telling a story. You need to be able to imagine things from the past to problem-solve in the present. Simply put, imagination is being able to imagine things that do not exist in your present reality and to use that to problem-solve and enhance your life. You do this almost every moment of every day. You are a far more imaginative and creative person than you have ever given yourself credit for.
One interesting imaginary activity is having an inner relationship with people who are not physically present to us. You, as both a child and adult, have imaginary relationships with real but inaccessible people like a deceased parent or absent sibling. It is not at all fanciful to acknowledge that we carry the deceased within us and continue to relate to them throughout life. We talk to them, we listen to their voice, and are often consoled by their presence within us. We can also have relationships with an inner god or presence that we pray to, talk to, or listen to. We can feel comforted and supported by these inner relationships. All of this is not strange but rather a wonderful aspect of how the human imagination enriches life.
We can also have relationships with inanimate entities like nature or personal objects like wedding rings or photographs. This ability is also seen readily in children who have relationships with soft toys and pets. We hear our children talking to their ‘teddy-bears’ as if they were real - and they are real in a vital sense. As an adult you actually do the same thing - but you keep it secret. For example, as you go through your day you will often talk to yourself, your car, God, or ‘life’ as you complain, delight, or call for help. You will casually urge inanimate objects to co-operate with you when they are stuck or resisting your efforts like a car that won’t start, a lock that won’t open, or a handbag that can’t be found. “Come on, come on” you exclaim, just like a three-year old talking to her teddy bear. This is all good and normal.
Just as a child engages in pretend-play, as they imagine themselves being doctors, nurses, heroes, etc., you also engage in ‘pretend’ all the time. You mentally rehearse your way through imagined scenes in your future. You will mentally imagine what you will do when you meet someone, arrive somewhere, or attempt something new. All-day every-day you engage in foresight - that is mentally imagining what lies in the future and preparing for it. In this way your imagination is fully alive and active and not at all passive.
Our mental life is a mix of problem-solving, logical thinking, and magical day dreaming where we go on imaginative little trips through scenarios such as winning the lotto, moving home, meeting someone new, or changing job. We take hundreds of little magical excursions throughout our day that embellish and animate the dull routine of life. It is magical because it is closer to the shore of imagination than reality. In fact Seamus Heaney said his life’s work was devoted to building a bridge between both.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.