What if our imagination was stunted, having never really grown?
I admit I haven’t considered this idea before. Call me naïve, but I supposed everyone had an active imagination whether sluggish or bustling.
When I recently read David Beckmann’s account of C.S. Lewis and the London evacuees in Life with the Professor: The True Story Behind the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I realized I had forgotten about Lewis’s experiences during World War II. A number of school-age girls stayed with him, his brother Warnie, and their household help at the Kilns. The “Operation Pied Piper” evacuees stayed for a few months or a few years while attending school nearby. Lewis quickly realized he and his brother could be positive influences on the children. Yet both men were also quick to admit they had had “little experience” with children in general.
Lewis soon found he was a father figure, a homework helper, and chore enthusiast. He also was adept at spoiling the girls. Bypassing his housekeeper Mrs. Moore, he snuck snacks and treats to them regularly.
But Lewis noted one thing was missing in the girls’ development—an apparent lack of imagination. It was as if the imagination muscle had atrophied. If he told a story on a long walk or at bedtime, the girls hardly knew what to do other than listen.
Their imaginations had suffered, but they were not dead. Lewis felt he could help.
“By the time the war was over,” Beckmann writes, “Lewis had a true, loving appreciation for the young and a compassionate concern that they learn to love the imaginary.”
Cultivating the imagination of children was simply one more motivation in Lewis’s fiction journey. Beckmann is certain Lewis began work on the Narnia Chronicles at this time, as early as 1939.
This short and relatable account quickened a train of thoughts for me. I wondered what role war and separation from family and friends played in stifling the imagination of those girls.
What about now? What other stressors inhibit creativity in the young? What about the old and all of us in between?
War, or perceived war, affects our imagination.
As I blogged about these ideas last month, more than one reader shared a war account with me and wondered the same thing I did. During the pandemic, many hospitals and entire cities have been described as battlegrounds in a war against a virus. The word trauma appears regularly.
Another reader responded that her foster children experienced the same lack C.S. Lewis observed in his London evacuees. Their imaginations had simply stopped. Her family continues to love and nurture and create opportunities for these children, for their imaginations to work. Play is crucial, she wrote. After a year, they are seeing creativity return.
Lewis’s theory about limited imagination in wartime proves true. The imagination can shut down to protect itself from grief, from imagining too vividly what happened. It will try to prevent itself from reliving trauma. The mind and spirit protect themselves.
Dr. Karyn Purvis agrees and advocates for trauma-informed care for children who come from hard places. Trauma physically affects brain growth on a physical level. Cognitive processing and emotional regulation slow. Higher level brain growth is stunted. Purvis says that brain behavior must return to the place before trauma happened. We help trauma victims by rewriting their brains with new safe experiences. Some psychologists call this imprinting. Some call it bonding. But all of it relates to resurrecting the imagination.
In my reading this week, I’ve realized the deprivations of the pandemic have affected me more deeply that I had guessed. Is that too simple? I’m pretty sure I’ve ignored it. For me, it’s a first step—acknowledging that it’s there. Many of you have been shaped by layers of loss that go deeper. Maybe you’ve thought the word trauma is too strong, but it rings true. As in war, your body, mind, and imagination have all been affected. But your imagination is not dead.
Imagination is integral to the quality of our lives. We are designed this way. In the words of George MacDonald,
“The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God. Everything of man must have been of God first; and it will help much towards our understanding of the imagination and its functions in man if we first succeed in regarding aright the imagination of God, in which the imagination of man lives and moves and has its being.”
Imagination fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships.
Featured image by standret