Healing of our Imagination

Of all our human faculties, our imagination is perhaps the most powerful. Imagination sparks every moment of human greatness. Without particularly imaginative individuals, we would never have arrived at modern marvels like the lunar landing or the polio vaccine. Personally, I am even more amazed at some of the prehistoric discoveries: the first writing down of speech,  the first singing of songs, the first riding of horses, and, yes, even the first brewing of beer. Without the gift of human imagination, none of those would have happened.

Unfortunately, the best also becomes the worst. Human imagination, when cleverly or deviously seduced, has spawned some of our ugliest moments: the Holocaust, terrorist attacks, human trafficking, and the multi-billion dollar pornography industry. Indeed, pick any addiction you like, and you will find unhealthy imagination at work. The addict, in his desire to numb his pain or fulfill his unmet human needs, will find himself fantasizing about his drug of choice. He imagines how amazing it will be if only he has a drink, makes a new purchase, eats his favorite snack, and so forth. The promised pleasure quickly gives way to emptiness, disappointment, and shame.

The human experience of disillusionment is not unique to addicts; it is universal to our fallen condition. We all know the feeling of a failed fantasy. Consider the clichés: “the grass is always greener…” or “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Lured by fantasies, we easily eject ourselves from the present moment and chase after illusions – whether in our relationships, our career, or our leisure activities. We miss the moment.

It is for good reason that Aristotle once declared the products of our imagination to be “for the most part false.” For every one brilliant burst of insight, there are myriads of missteps. He is not wrong. How do navigate the labyrinth? The answer can be found in a sanctified imagination. It is not a curse to be cast aside, but a gift to be healed.

Previously I wrote about the healing of our memory, which is the root of our identity. Our identity will be either distorted or healthy depending on how fully our memory is integrated into God’s eternal memory. Similarly, an unhealed imagination runs wild and creates chaos, but a healed and sanctified imagination begins to participate in God’s own creative action. He designed us men and women to share in his creativity, crafting us in his own image and likeness and setting us apart from the other animals.

When it comes to imagination, we are both alike and unlike the beasts. Thomas Aquinas compares and contrasts human imagination with animal imagination. We both have the capacity to form and store up “images” – not just visual ones – but all sorts of mental impressions of the experiences of our five senses. We hold on to pleasant sights and sounds and smells – or nasty ones – and learn to seek or avoid them accordingly. Not only that, men and beasts alike form connections between one mental impression and another, and react accordingly. A child learns to associate the words “ice cream” with a pleasurable experience. A dog reacts with equal excitement to the words “dog park.” The same holds true for avoidance of danger or discomfort. Animals learn to recognize the presence of predators and elude them. Children learn not to touch things that are pointy or hot, and they quickly avoid uncles who offer to play “52 pickup.”

Human imagination, however, has the capacity to go far beyond the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. We can do something astounding that animals cannot do. We can take one mental image and pair it up with other seemingly unrelated images. Thomas gives the example of combining “gold” and “mountain” to envision mountains made of gold.

This powerful human capacity to imagine new possibilities points towards God’s perfection, particularly his infinity and his creativity. He alone is truly infinite, having no limits whatsoever. He alone truly “creates,” making something out of nothing. Yet in his abundant goodness he wills us to share in his infinity and to share in his creativity. Imagination, with its endless potential, plays a particularly important role, whether for good or evil. We share in God’s own creativity when we allow our imagination to be ordered to all that is good and true and beautiful.

By contrast, we rupture our relationships when we employ our imagination to “create” in a manner totally independent of God. That is the original temptation of the devil, who is a liar and a murderer from the beginning. He tempts Adam and Eve by appealing to their imagination: “You will be like gods!” Instead of receiving from God and participating in his plan, they seize and grasp and “create” their own version of truth, goodness, and beauty.

We all share in the sin of our first parents. Our imagination has been wounded, and is now reclaimed by the blood of Christ. In him, we have the freedom to allow our imagination to be sanctified, and we have the freedom to fantasize in a way that disconnects us from God and others and self.

 How is our imagination healed and sanctified? Jesus offers answers.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). When we Americans hear these words (Puritans that we are) we often think of sexual purity. But the deeper meaning here is an undivided heart, consecrated entirely to God. If we have a fragmented and unsanctified imagination, we will feel pulled in a million directions. As we allow our imagination to be sanctified, a true vision emerges: both of God and of ourselves. We can follow the path which he illumines, step by step, and exit the entangled labyrinth.

This slow and steady sanctification is particularly important if we have struggled with addictive behaviors. In that case, our brain has formed many habitual associations between mental images (sights, sounds, smells, etc.). We can easily be triggered. Indeed, the most deviously imaginative advertisers deliberately market their products so that users will be constantly reminded of them and feel the urge without even realizing it.

But there is hope. Ancient and medieval wisdom tell us that bad habits can be reshaped into virtues. Contemporary brain science tells us about brain plasticity. It turns out that you can teach old dogs new tricks – at least if they desire to learn, and if they are patient and consistent. There are two main ways of purifying and sanctifying our fragmented imagination: regular “exercise” and regular prayer.

By “exercise” I mean any number of activities that flex the muscles of one’s imagination in life-giving ways which correspond to one’s own God-given heart. This could include art, crafts, writing, poetry, music, cooking, hospitality, computer programming, etc. The unique gifts vary from person to person. We have to ask which ones truly cause us to feel like a child of God, which ones make our heart sing.

In terms of prayer, if done well and done consistently, it truly engages all our faculties, especially our imagination – allowing God’s grace to soak in and transform us. What kinds of prayer work well? There are many possibilities, but I know of at least two that are tried and true: Lectio Divina and a daily Examen. I look forward to discussing each of those in the weeks ahead!

My Needy Microwave

In my last post, I described my oversensitive smoke alarm. It is not the only kitchen appliance that gives me grief. There is also my needy microwave. It emits three loud beeps when the timer elapses. If I don’t promptly get up and open the door, it beeps three times again. Another thirty seconds, and it will beep again. And again. And again. It doesn’t give up! It will literally keep on beeping every thirty seconds, per omnia saecula saeculorum, unless and until you give it the attention it so desperately craves.

Part of me has a vivid and rather morbid imagination. Maybe I read too much Dean Koontz. I visualize myself having an untimely accident. Perhaps the smoke alarm startles me and I stumble into the refrigerator. It falls upon me, and there I lie, my pelvis crushed, pinned to the floor for hours or days – alone, that is, except for my microwave beeping at me every 30 seconds! Hey, stranger things have happened…

Thumbing through the owner’s manual left me in a state of stunned disbelief. There is no way of reprogramming the beeping on this particular model. Seriously, what was that programmer thinking? Was he a misogynist secretly hoping to exact revenge on housewives everywhere? Who in his right mind wants a microwave that never stops beeping?

Well, you know what they say about owners and their appliances: they become more and more like each other over time. I got to thinking that, just as my brain has an overactive smoke detector, it also engages in a regular and relentless beeping, much like my microwave. This crying for attention is not a programming glitch or oversight. It is there by God’s design.

Having needs is a human reality. On a spiritual level, we depend upon God through regular prayer, and depend on others for guidance and faith formation. Physically, there are obvious needs like food, water, shelter, and sleep. We can add to those the less obvious yet quite important physical needs like meaningful touch, regular bodily exertion, and regular relaxation. There are also emotional needs like feeling safe and secure, belonging to a larger tribe, feeling wanted, feeling cared for, feeling calmed and soothed, feeling understood, feeling encouraged, and more. If we are running on empty in some of these basic human needs, our brain will start beeping at us.

Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as having so many needs. We fear becoming a nuisance like my microwave – constantly bothering others until they pay attention to us. These fears run more deeply for those of us raised in homes that discouraged us from having or expressing needs. Speaking for myself, I definitely came into agreement with the idea that I should put my emotional life on the shelf and learn to be “independent.” Eventually, I came to believe the lie that I don’t have that many needs. I went through decades of my life convinced that I wasn’t a very emotional person and that it was much better not to depend on others.

We can take that approach to life, but not without consequences. God gave us free will –including even the shocking possibility of living against the truth of our human nature. Eventually it catches up with us.

The full truth of our humanity involves being needful and interdependent. God alone can fill us, but we depend upon others in the process. This past Christmas, I found myself often pondering the example of Christ, who shows us what it means to be human. Even though he was exalted and perfect and divine, he humbled himself to become one of us (Philippians 2:6-8). He became profoundly needful, depending totally upon Mary and Joseph as well as upon his heavenly Father. Indeed, he spent most of his earthly life growing and maturing, in dependence upon others (Luke 2:52). He spent only a proportionately small part of his life giving and serving and sacrificing. It was precisely because his human needs had been regularly met that he was able to lay his life down so freely, surrendering to the shame and abandonment and rejection of the Cross. He had no doubt of being God’s beloved Son, chosen and blessed and called. Did everyone love or understand or accept him? By no means. But he did receive all of those things with some regularity from those who mattered the most. As a human being, he needed to receive those things, and did not take any short cuts.

We live in an age of short cuts and quick fixes. Modernity seduces us with the lie that we can reshape our human nature to be whatever we want it to be. Perhaps we ignore our physical needs, eating only what we feel like and living a sedentary lifestyle. In so doing, we ignore the truth that our bodies need nourishment and are made for physical exertion. The end result is an unhealthy body, not to mention emotional and spiritual misery. Or perhaps we ignore our emotional needs –to belong, to be understood or soothed or encouraged or accepted. We impetuously insist that only weak people need to worry about those things. But all the while our internal microwave keeps beeping and beeping. If we repeatedly ignore those needs, then our brains will start beeping in other ways: enticing us to fantasy thinking, unhealthy lifestyle choices, or addictive behaviors.

There are consequences if we ignore what it means to be human. St. Thomas Aquinas defines man as a rational animal. We are “rational” insofar as we are set apart from the rest of the animals, “very good” in God’s own image and likeness. Yet we remain bodily creatures, together with the animals – and are invited to respect the goodness and authentic physical and emotional needs that God has given us.

In so many aspects of life, our bodies and brains work like those of our fellow mammals. Our lower brains have a limbic system that helps us to belong, survive, and thrive as a meaningful part of our social group. Those parts of our brain (including the “smoke alarm,” or amygdala) give us a sense of pleasure or fear or anger. They give us a desire for union with others and for fruitfulness.

When authentic needs are repeatedly ignored, we become especially susceptible to the wiles of the evil one. Our genuine needs morph and twist into insatiable urges for things that won’t actually help us. For example, if we totally ignore our need for safety and security, we may find ourselves constantly craving “comfort food” and having little freedom to resist those urges. If we totally ignore our needs for belonging or acceptance or affection, we may find ourselves having unwelcome fantasies – perhaps in the form of envy or jealousy or rivalry, perhaps in the form of lust or flirtation or pornography.

When these things happen, our impulse as devout Christians is to shame ourselves. Certainly, it is wise to avoid the near occasion of sin. But instead of self-shaming, a more helpful approach is to take some deep breaths, step into our “watchtower,” and calmly notice what is going on, with a childlike wonder and curiosity: “Huh, there goes that alarm bell again. I wonder why it’s ringing this time?” On the surface, it seems like it’s a matter of jealousy or lust or gluttony or greed. Those are the urges we feel. But so often, if we really tune in, we will notice that we’re not actually hungry, that we don’t “need” to make that purchase, that we don’t “need” sexual gratification, etc. Our limbic brain doesn’t know the difference! It’s just programmed to go off when our emotions need attention. It needs to be led and guided from there. In fact, it’s made to be led and guided – not just by our higher brain function, but by healthy relationships with God and others. It is often only when we begin sharing our deepest struggles and deepest yearnings with others that we begin to make more sense out of them. We become more aware of our deepest spiritual and emotional needs, and they begin to be met as we learn to receive from God what has always been there. We gain greater freedom to embrace the full and rich truth of our humanity. We begin to abide in love and truth.