I shut my eyes in order to see, said French painter, sculptor, and artist Paul Gauguin. As a little girl, though completely unaware of this insightful quote on imagination, I lived this maxim. Nothing was more exhilarating to me than closing my eyes in order to imagine far away exotic lands, a handsome prince, or climbing down a deep enough hole leading straight to China!
In fact, like many, imagination fueled my young heart and mind. After reading C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I would walk into dark closets filled with warm winter coats fully expecting to be transported like the Pevensie children into strange and wonderful land. Charlotte’s Web took me to a farm where I could talk to my dog, like Fern talked to Wilbur, or to the spiders that hung from intricate webs in my garage. Pictures on the wall came to life and danced before me; ordinary objects became extraordinary tools enabling me to defeat all those imaginary giants and inspiring me toward powerful possibilities fueled by vivid imagination.
Sadly, as happens to many adults, my imagination has changed. I don’t often view my closet as a doorway to unseen worlds, nor do I pretend that my dogs understand one word of my verbalizing towards them. Pictures don’t come to life, and I no-longer pretend my garden rake or broom is a secret weapon against fantastical foes. Often, I feel that my imagination has become nothing more than wishful thinking. Rather than thinking creatively about the life I’ve been given, I day-dream about what my life might be like if… I lived in Holland, for example, or could back-pack across Europe, or lived on a kibbutz, or was a famous actress, or a world-renowned tennis player, or any number of alternative lives to the one I currently occupy.
Sadly, the imagination so vital in my youth doesn’t usually infuse my life with creative possibility, but rather leads me only to wonder if the grass is greener on the other side. Mid-life regrets reduce imagination to restlessness and shrivel creative thinking to nothing more than unsettled daydreams. Rather than allowing my imagination to be animated with creative ideas about living in my life now, I allow it to be tethered to worldly dreams of more, or better, or simply other.
The psalmist was not in a mid-life imaginative crisis when he penned Psalm 90. Nevertheless, this psalm attributed to Moses, was a prayer to the God who inspires imagination for our one life to live. Perhaps Moses wrote this psalm after an endless day of complaint from wilderness-weary Israelites. Perhaps it was written with regret that his violent outburst against the rock would bar him from entry into the Promised Land. Whatever event prompted its writing, it is a song sung in a minor key, with regret so great he feels consumed by God’s anger and dismayed by God’s seeming wrath towards him.
Whether prompted by deep regret, disillusionment, or a simple admitting of reality, Moses reflects on the brevity of life. He compares it to the grass “which sprouts anew. In the morning, it flourishes; toward evening it fades, and withers away” (Psalm 90:6). Indeed, he concedes that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night” (90:4). Before we know it, our lives are past, and what do we have to show for them? Have we lived creatively? Have we used our imagination to infuse our fleeting, one-and-only lives to bring forth offerings of beauty and blessing?
Imagination, like any other gift, has the potential for good or for ill. It has power to fill my one and only life with creative possibility, or it has the potential to become nothing more than wishful thinking. As the psalmist suggests, our lives can be full of creative possibility when we seek to live wisely, live joyfully, and live gladly before the God of infinite imagination and creativity.
Imagination built upon a foundation of gratitude invites us to live our lives with hope and with possibility to imagine great things for our God-given lives. “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard….all that God has prepared for those who love him” (Isaiah 64:4; 65:17). Can we imagine it?
In light of our transience, we have the choice to live imaginatively or wishfully long for another life. We can choose to dwell in the present with a creative God who longs for us to live abundantly, or we can choose to waste our time peering over to the other side. Yet we only have one life to live! We do well to join in prayer with the psalmist: Teach us to number our days that we may sing for joy and be glad, and confirm the work of the Creator’s good hands.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.