On imagination

I was reading this article about an address to Harvard University students by the author of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling. Rowling is quoted as saying:

“We do not need magic to transform our world,” she said. “We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already; we have the power to imagine better”.

Rowling addressed the fundamental importance of imagination – that anything is possible, and that imagination gives one the power to feel empathy.

On anything is possible, imagination truly is a wondrous gift. Yet I fear that it’s a gift that our social and political systems try to beat out of us (metaphorically) to conform to the “real world”.

Children have boundless imagaination. I well remember a science lesson in junior primary school in which we discussed the possibility of life on other planets in our solar system (back when Pluto was in the team). One of my classmates, Ian Ball, said that life could be on any of the planets, to which he was roundly shouted down – how could there be life on Jupiter or Pluto – ha, ha, ha! Ian replied that there could indeed be icicle men on Pluto! And of course, why not? Just because our human concept of life requires a certain environment does not preclude a system of life existing beyong our present knowledge. Afterall, look at what Star Trek and Alien and Farscape imagine is possible!

You can see how what happens with children who have tremendous imagination but have it gradually worn away by “growing up” – what we know in the present rather than what is possible beyond us.

The capacity for imagination in the board rooms of corporations, in the offices of politicians, proprietors, and principals, are sadly lacking today. Let’s deal with the present, they say, and hope that we may straighten out the future with the tools and thinking that have got us to where we are today. Yet the future is craving to be discovered through imagination.

And empathy? How can humans respond to people if they cannot share their experiences? They can share or approximate the experience by imagining what it must be like to be in the shoes of the other person. That is empathy. That is how we can feel connected, no matter who we are or where we live. It is why we need to think of the big picture as well as our own small worlds.

People like J. K. Rowling (perhaps a Jules Verne from another time) challenge the way we see the world. They challenge our thinking to see what is possible even if we can’t understand how to get there now. We must nurture imagination and we must learn how to use imagination to solve the present real-world problems and take on new opportunities.

Imagination is an asset that needs greater attention in our dealings with others and in looking beyond what we see and accept now. Let’s start using it!


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