Simone de Beauvoir says, “It is our lack of imagination that depopulates the future.”
I think the inverse is the case. It is our excess of imagination that populates the future with all kinds of fantastical characters that often cannot be realized. The act of imagining allows one to see vistas and horizons, as well as the smallest details of such views. Once circumstances change, these visions remain, but are often no longer tied to possibility. The imagination has envisioned what life cannot fulfill. From this gap springs discontent.
Imagining is one of the most fruitful activities that we as humans find ourselves doing. Imagination is what allows us to think up stories, ideas, and artistic projects, but it is also present in just about every thought that we have. Every single time I think about my future, whether it be the coffee I am going to make five minutes from now or the house I hope to have twenty years from now, I am imagining. Every time I think about the past, I am imagining, too: for the act of remembering entails imagining what once was. The vast majority of the thoughts that populate our daily lives make use of imagining. The imagination is the ability to represent sense-images, usually (or always, for empiricists) syntheses of images one has perceived in the past. Such images do not merely indicate “mental pictures,” but can be an entire scene, including imagined conversation, gesture, touching, noises, tastes, and smells. They could last an instant or be of novel-length. Our lives are populated by such imaginings. These images are often used to represent possible future occurrences or states of affairs; and indeed, one might wonder if the capacity to imagine made some of our human ancestors along the way better able to survive than those who were not able to imagine. Whether it be in considering the future or the past, fancifully daydreaming, wondering how so-and-so felt when something happened to her, imagining what it might be like to live in Bangkok, or even imagining the taste the flavor of our favorite ice cream in the moments before the spoon reaches our lips, imagining is a constant activity that undergirds human life and thought in often unnoticeable ways.
And yet there are times when the imagination must be coaxed into a greater state of rest. I’ll never forget the time when a friend advised me after a relationship ended, “Stop imagining.” How did he know I was having trouble getting over it because I kept imagining what had been and what might have been? Of course, the injunction to “Stop imagining” would be impossible to fulfill, but that piece of advice proved extremely valuable. Because, rather than letting my imagination spin huge webs of “shoulda, woulda, coulda”s regarding the relationship, I was able to catch myself in the act, take a breath, and remind myself that there were plenty of other things to think about– and far more useful subjects to ponder.
In De Anima, Aristotle argues that imagination is prone to error in a way that sense perception is not. We are able to think up all sorts of things that could not possibly exist in reality. For instance, I have the capacity to imagine a dog with spaghetti for fur, because I have had sense perceptions of both dogs and spaghetti in the past, although it would clearly be false to take this imagining for a real perception (not that the lines between imagination and perception are ever black and white, as in the case of delusion to which all of us fall prey, perhaps even are constantly doing so).
The act of imagining is happening in our mental processes all the time, often occurring without a sense of conscious effort. In fact, imagining can often be contrary to one’s efforts. Certain images force themselves upon us when we do not want them– either they are contents that are unpleasant, threatening, traumatic to imagine, or it is simply the wrong time to be caught up in imagining (such as daydreaming during class right before your professor calls on you). But why do these images force themselves on us so? I think there are two primary sources for compulsive imagining: either the image has some imminent immediacy, demanding a plan of action in the near future, or the image pertains to deeply rooted desires, usually concerning self-identity. In the latter case, the images need not express desires, but must arise from them. The latter impulse to imagine could take any number of forms, from trying to put myself in another’s shoes in order to imagine how that person perceives me, to imagining the illustrious future that may await me. Often in our imaginings, our very sense of self, self-worth, and personal identity is caught up in the matter. Sometimes in the case of compulsive imagining, it is helpful to ask oneself, ‘What is at stake for me here? What sense of self is this image either promoting or threatening, and why am I so invested in it?’