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Practicing the discipline of imagination

It may disgust my parents to hear this, but some of the greatest presents I ever received were cardboard boxes.

They weren’t boxes. They were spaceships, racecars, robots, trucks, or construction equipment — anything we could imagine them to be. Some of the greatest days were the days when my brother and I got out the card table and the blankets from the hall closet. We’d put those blankets over the card table set up in front of the couch, and we’d take the big yellowish-brown blanket and stretch it from the card table over the entire couch so that we’d enter the blanket fort from the floor, but could go up a level to the “loft” on the couch. We started with some blankets, a card table and a couch, but we ended up with a multilevel mansion!

As the years went by, we stopped making blanket forts and cardboard box spaceships. I thought I held on to my imagination well, but by college I had essentially lost it. I remember exactly when I realized this: It was in the middle of watching the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.” There’s a scene where Will Smith’s character has to camp out in a public bathroom with his son. The way he does it is magical: He presses a button on the machine he’s trying to sell and tells his son it’s a time machine. His son closes and opens his eyes and says, “Woah, what is it?” “Dinosaurs!” his dad replies. All of a sudden they’re not in the subway, they’re at a campfire being attacked by a T-Rex, and they have to hide in a cave (the bathroom) to escape. Watching this, I realized that I had lost that ability to transform my surroundings into something they weren’t just by using my imagination. That skill had gotten me through countless hours of overwhelming boredom — and I had simply let it go.

Our imaginations are incredible tools that can open up worlds of possibilities around us. The trick is that in order to use them, we have to first open up those worlds of possibilities within our own minds. Younger generations, such as the one I belong to, tend to see lots of possibility and opportunity. But in my case at least, I tend to see possibilities for changing the world around me, conforming it to my ideals, trying to make it better using my definition of “better.” One typical example of this is an entrepreneur (or even a church!) investing in an area, convincing people to move in to that area and “accidentally” gentrifying it, making the now “better” neighborhood unaffordable for the people who were supposed to have been helped by the whole process. Maybe a more typical example for my life is walking into a new call at a new church and suggesting a dozen or so new things to do to make things “better” — community events, new orders of worship, changes to committees — without taking into consideration the experience of people who have been living as part of the church community for years or decades.

In many cases, this is a misuse of imagination. If you use your imagination to change the world to fit your definition of “better,” you’re not really using your imagination — you’re trying to make everyone else see things your way.

Imagination allows us to appreciate our lives, especially at times when there doesn’t seem to be much to appreciate. How many hours in a boring classroom or a cramped waiting room have you transformed into adventures by just daydreaming, telling yourself a story? How often did your living room floor turn into lava (at least until your parents told you to stop jumping on the furniture)?

What I’m trying to say is this: Don’t try to change the world, try to change your mind. Don’t try to transform the world, try to transform your way of thinking and seeing things.

One of the most mind-blowing facts I’ve learned this past year is that there’s overwhelming statistical evidence that if you present someone with rational, clear, well-thought out facts that contradict their way of thinking, they are far more likely to entrench their current beliefs than change them. Said another way: The worst way to convince people to change their ways is to give them a rational argument that tells them how wrong they are. Perhaps we would be better off changing our own minds instead of the minds of others: learning to see superheroes working at cash registers, massive jungles in the weeds growing out of concrete crevices and fluffy bunnies floating by in the clouds. It always improves my mood when I see a giant rabbit flying across the sky.

My hope is advocating for this discipline of imagination is that we will learn to see the possibilities within ourselves rather than seeing all the myriad ways the world doesn’t live up to the possibilities we see for it. I’m not suggesting we should ignore the world, don our virtual reality headsets and ignore everything going wrong. I’m simply observing that constantly focusing on the difference between the world as it is and the world as you wish it to be is a perfect recipe for burnout and cynicism. The truth is that the world will likely never be as any of us wish it to be — certainly not all of us at once. So I suggest we learn to appreciate the world as it is, as far as we can. See the good in it, see the good in others and see the good in yourself.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther and the other Reformers changed the way the Western world approached God. We look back and see the great figures like Luther and John Calvin and perhaps wish for another great Reformation to fix the problems we have today. If we’re honest with ourselves, though, few of us would follow a reformer who truly asked us to change our ways. Not unless we had the imagination and confidence to set aside our pride and see the world from another person’s perspective. I hope that when that next Reformation comes, we won’t all miss it because we’re each trying to be reformers ourselves. I hope that, as the Spirit moves, we’ll allow ourselves to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.