The Wonder of Imagination
How to Survive Winter
I survived the winter of 2008 by dreaming of a garden. I had lived in my new home for just a little more than a year, and I imagined elaborate raised beds filled with lettuce and cabbages. I thought about germinating tomato plants and herbs from seed. I thumbed through catalogs filled with hoop houses and garden implements and had long conversations with my dad about which vegetables would grow best on my small urban lot.
Of course the winter of 2008 wasn’t just any winter. At the time I assumed it was my last winter. At the age of 37, I was undergoing treatment for stage 4 cancer, and by the time I began imagining my garden, I was quarantined in my house because my white blood cell count had gotten dangerously low. Not that I wanted to go anywhere anyway: I was bald, nauseated, and a fraction of myself after a radical hysterectomy and losing more than a quarter of my body weight.
But I survived because of three things, three things God provided in abundance that winter: the love of friends and family, the expertise and care of my medical team, and a healthy dose of imagination. I couldn’t do much, but I could dream of better days.
In fact, dreaming of better days could almost be the definition of imagination, as our minds wander around ideas and images not present to the senses. And there’s never a season more suited to imagination than winter.
Recently, my friend Christie lamented on Instagram how the world feels devoid of color and how it takes a special kind of patience to wait for spring when the world feels frozen all the way through. Here’s what I told her: “I think surviving winter (or the winter seasons of our lives) takes many things, but chief among them is imagination ... life won’t always be this way. It takes real vision, hope, and faith to believe that.” I was thinking of winter 2008 at the time.
I think about winter 2008 a lot, in fact. I remember how my senses were distorted by chemotherapy drugs: certain smells made me nauseated, most foods tasted metallic, and even my sense of touch was interrupted by a burning sensation in my feet and a dryness in my skin. I didn’t even sweat anymore. But what I lacked in sensory awareness I made up for in heightened creativity. Besides dreaming of a garden, I also painted pictures, read Agatha Christie novels, kept a blog, and dreamed vividly about my deceased relatives. A season filled with deep grief and uncertainty was also a deeply imaginative time for me.
If imagination is dreaming of better days, then we could also say that imagination is another word for hope, or even faith. In Hebrews 11, the author writes that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” In fact, later in that same chapter, we learn that our spiritual ancestors “did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance … longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” If that doesn’t take imagination, I’m not sure what does.
Jesus himself often appealed to the imagination through parables and other stories to help us understand life in the kingdom of God. I think of the sower and his seeds, the virgins and their lamps, the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost son. I imagine a mansion with many rooms and Jesus there, setting up rooms for us. And I see a city with streets paved in gold. These are our glimpses of the better country that we see only from a distance, from our imagination. But they stoke our faith and give us hope beyond what we can experience with our own senses.
I love the way Paul talks about the message of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 2:
“No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this,
Never so much as imagined anything quite like it—
What God has arranged for those who love him.
But you’ve seen and heard it because God by his Spirit has brought it all out into the open before you” (vs. 9-10, The Message).
Only if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, though. In her book Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren says that we don’t always make space for the spiritual mysteries in our every day lives, not because of an over reliance on science or reason but “from a failure of imagination, an imagination formed by a disenchanted view of the world.” Too often we stick only to what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, but that come with “the loss of wonder,” Harrison says. “I rarely stop to consider that the universe--and even my small home--is drenched with the presence of God and full to the brim with spiritual mysteries.”
Still, even with a healthy dose of wonder and imagination, we still haven’t seen it all or heard it all because as Pauls tells the Ephesians, “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us” (Eph. 3:20, The Message).
And at least part of that work within us is to keep us imagining, to help us dream, to fix our eyes on that better country so we’ll continue in faith and hope and especially in love.
In his book The Way of Imagination, Scott Russell Sanders makes the connection between imagination and love by drawing on the wisdom of Marilynne Robinson, the award-winning novelist of Gilead, Home, and most recently, Jack. As a writer of fiction, Robinson says that she’s “spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of--who knows it better than I?--people who do not exist,” also known as the characters of her novels.
“And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”
By way of reflection, Sanders says that “the desire to reduce the suffering of other beings, whether human or nonhuman, arises from this imaginative love,” and that “literature nurtures this love by making those suffering beings present to us, making them familiar, making them seem no longer like strangers or alien tribes, but like kindred.” The same is true in Jesus’ parables, and in the stories of those who actually do exist, even in photos and paintings and plays where we see the human drama unfold. Through the imagination, we long not only for the better country for ourselves but for others to go there with us. We imagine an end to the suffering and grief and uncertainty in this life.
Through imagination, our faith and hope most resemble love.
We’re in the final days of winter once again, and though the signs of spring are emerging (longer days, greening grass, tiny shoots emerging), it still takes a lot of imagination to see how this gray, cold world will come alive again.
But as long as we can imagine it, we can hope. And that’s enough to survive another winter.