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Imagination as Spiritual Gift

No one ever really talks about it, but I firmly believe that imagination is a spiritual gift, inherent in each human being and affects everything we do and everything we are. In fact, according to John O’Donohue, the sacred duty of the imagination is to imagine our very selves.

The arts seem to be the first thing to come to mind when talking about imagination. However, it would be a mistake to limit the imagination to a tool of the artist. Yes, imagination is essential in creating stories, art, music, poetry and drama. But imagination is much more than that. Imagination is essential to life itself.Imagination allows us to glimpse beyond the visible world to the unseen world beyond. Imagination allows us to envision our futures, our relationships,  our work and play, and so much more. 

For today, let’s simply talk about the power of imagination in imagining ourselves! We are not simply the end result of our experiences as if we were the sum of a math equation. Our imaginations help us determine how we will respond to those experiences and how we will create our futures. The big question is: Who do we want to be and who do we want to be remembered as?

Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite, originally used in construction and mining, but eventually instrumental in warfare. He made a fortune at it, opening 90 factories in 20 different countries.

In 1888, Nobel’s brother Ludvig died in France from a heart attack. Thanks to poor reporting, at least one French newspaper believed that it was Alfred who had perished, and it proceeded to write a scathing obituary that branded him a “merchant of death” who had grown rich by developing new ways to “mutilate and kill.” The error was later corrected, but not before Alfred had the unpleasant experience of reading his own death notice. 

According to biographer Kenne Fant, Nobel “became so obsessed with his posthumous reputation that he rewrote his last will, bequeathing most of his fortune to a cause upon which no future obituary writer would be able to cast aspersions.”

At 62-year-old, Alfred wrote out his last will and testament. In fewer than 1,000 handwritten words, Nobel outlined a plan to devote the vast majority of his estate—worth around $265 million today—to a series of prizes for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Three were for the greatest discoveries or inventions in the fields of physics, chemistry and medicine, while a fourth was devoted to the author of the “most outstanding work” of literature. The fifth award was designated for the person who had done the most, or best, work creating peace between nations.

When Alfred died in 1896 (at age 63, a year after he wrote the will), his will was hotly contested by members of his family, and then the foundation took some time to set up, but finally the first Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded in 1901.

I love this quote by Steven Covey: “Live out of your imagination, not your history.” This is exactly what Alfred did. He used his imagination to vision a future where his name was not anathema for creating instruments of death, but esteemed for encouraging goodness in the world.

I met a man recently who owns Here and There Movers who moved my "second mom" into St. Monica’s Assisted Living on Friday. When we arranged everything, we somehow got into an extended conversation about the son he’d just lost, about his grandmother, his company… all kinds of things. One of the things he told me is that he used to be an alcoholic and a drug addict, then one day he found himself asking whether he could live with himself if something ever happened to his children if he were too drunk or too high to help them, or call 911. The answer was no, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. Consequently, he got help from a 12 step program, got clean, and started his own business.

The key to this is he had to be able to imagine a different life for himself before he could bring it to reality.

Some of our most despairing moments are due, in part, to a failure of imagination. We can’t imagine our lives without someone else. We can’t imagine finding a new job, or changing what we do. We can’t imagine not minding what the gossip says about us. We can’t imagine being happy in a new house or without all our stuff or without all our abilities. We can't imagine not drinking, or smoking or eating sweets. 

Thomas Moore once said, “We tend to consider imagination too lightly, forgetting that the life we make, for ourselves individually and for the world as a whole, is shaped and limited only by the perimeters of our imagination. Things are as we imagine them to be, as we imagine them into existence.”

Imagination is a spiritual gift that NEVER leaves us. It is just waiting to be invited to the drawing board to brainstorm. You’re bored? OK, let’s think of things to do. You don’t know what you’re going to do in retirement? OK, let’s imagine what that could look like. You’re old view of God doesn’t work anymore? OK, let’s imagine God in bigger terms. Your physical abilities have declined? OK, let’s imagine what can fulfill you with what you do have. You’re feeling dissatisfied with life? OK, let’s imagine new opportunities and possibilities.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love tells a story in her latest book about a woman named Eileen who “acquires new tattoos the way [one] might acquire a new pair of cheap earrings – just for the heck of it, just on a whim. She wakes up some mornings in a funk and announces, ‘I think I’ll go get a new tattoo today.’ If you ask her what kind of tattoo she’s planning on getting, she’ll say, ‘Oh, I dunno. I’ll figure it out when I get to the tattoo shop. Or I’ll just let the artist surprise me.’”

Once, Elizabeth asked her how she could allow her body to be marked up so casually with permanent ink, she replied, “Oh, but you misunderstand! It’s not permanent. It’s all just temporary.”

“You mean, all your tattoos are temporary?”

“No, Liz. My tattoos are permanent; it’s just my body that’s temporary. We’re only here on earth for a short while, so I decided a long time ago that I wanted to decorate myself as playfully as I can, while I still have time.”

Elizabeth said that she loved her attitude because it spoke about living the “most vividly decorated temporary life” that we can. Elizabeth wasn't planning on covering herself with tattoos, but decided to spend as much time as she could “creating delightful things out of [her] existence.”

Matthew Fox tells the story of when his mother was dying. One day when she was so sick, Matthew’s sister went to visit her in the hospital and her mother said to her, “I was up all night and did not sleep at all.” His sister said, “Why not? What is wrong with you now?” And his mother replied, “It’s not that. It’s that I have never died before, and I stayed up all night to figure out how to do it right.”

In a very real way we are the authors of our own lives, and to help us write our stories we have the power of sacred imagination. Don’t let your imagination be squelched or ignored. It is the Divine at work! What will we imagine for our days, for our relationships, for our work and our play, for our living and our dying?

Love & Light!