In one way we human beings are masterful at repeating what we’ve already learned. It’s our capacity to make sense of what we encounter, starting from a very young age, and to respond to what we find by developing skilful ways of coping, that makes it possible for us to navigate the already existing world in which we find ourselves.
Without our capacity to become familiar with whatever world we’re born into, so much would be impossible for us. Every new development in culture, language and technology would be so confusing to us. Imagine what it would be like if all of us were to wake up each and every morning unfamiliar with beds, shoes, doors, speaking, phones, cars, social custom, police officers, government, tables, computers, schools, forks… It’s our very capacity to develop a kind of background, habitual understanding of everything that makes the development of new culture and new ideas a possibility for us at all.
But our habitual familiarity is also a constraint for us, because we so easily keep on trying to cope with a world that has changed, long after it’s changed. We repeat, for example, the roles and actions that we learned in childhood long into our adulthood – trying to get the approval we sought from the adults around us, or nursing old wounds, or replaying with our friends, colleagues and partners the roles we took up around our parents and siblings in our family of origin.
Which is why a vital counterpoint to our familiarity with the world is our capacity to imagine. We are not fixed, however often it might seem that way. Neither are we doomed to play out reactive, repetitive patterns throughout our lives. We can imagine bigger worlds, and bigger possibilities, and new stories for ourselves and others.
And when we find new stories – with more expansive roles for ourselves and those around us – and bring them to life by living them in our language and practice, with artistry and creativity, we can actually change the world… at least the world for us and for those nearby. And that is, always, the only place to start.
Such acts of imagination are necessary for all of us. And they, like so many forms of creativity and generosity, can be learned and practiced over time.
And it can be one of the most exquisite gifts of a human life to imagine and bring the new possibilities we see to other people’s lives, as well as to ourselves.
Inspired by Georges Méliès, whose imagination helped him see possibilities in film that nobody before him had seen, and by Martin Scorcese’s beautiful film Hugo, which features him as a central character, and which I saw with my family today.