catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 5 :: 2013.03.01 — 2013.03.14


Child’s play

Making space for virtue

My mother, who has been an early-childhood educator for almost 30 years, is a great advocate for imaginative play. For her, imagination allows children to confront reality — often confusing and often quite frightening — on their own terms. She’s always stocked up on clothing, hats and jewelry for her classrooms. She’s an advocate of Santa Claus and even the Easter Bunny, and will side with the finger-brandishing youngsters in the common argument of gun-control in child’s play.  “Gun/super hero play can be very hard for adults to accept,” she says, “but it is needed for children to process their world and work through worries or just feel powerful… All this is needed to develop a curious, creative mind for real life problems.”

Now that I am confronted — or bombarded — with the pressure to conform to an often unimaginative world, I find that curious, creative mind just as essential. Perhaps we adults think that imagination is useful in childhood only or only valuable in certain, definable contexts; it might be necessary for those with positions in the arts, or to gain a professional edge, but not essential to adult personal development.

But the unimaginative life is an impoverished one. What do we abandon when we let go of our imaginary friends or stop playing? When we adopt a persona or entertain a belief (however temporal), we are flexing invaluable muscles of a maturing selfhood. When we “play pretend,” wear masks or costumes, we confront our relationships to the world, and our relationship to that which we are impersonating. It is the chance to step into someone else’s shoes.

In this way, imagination, at its best, is an exercise in empathy, hospitality, courage and hope. Children’s writers seem to understand this well. They speak of fantasy as a way to more clearly envision the possibilities within ourselves and our “real” world.  When asked why she wrote books for children, L’Engle replied, “I don’t…. If I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.” The need to inhabit imaginary spaces doesn’t disappear with age, although the skill might.

In an essay entitled “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said,” C.S. Lewis says something similar: “The inhibitions which I hoped my stories would overcome in a child’s mind may exist in a grown-up’s mind too, and may perhaps be overcome by the same means.” Lewis and L’Engle understood that imagination is essential to the development of virtue, because to imagine is to extend hospitality to possibility. When we imagine, we make room for what is yet to come, and that is a way of tilling the earth of our minds in order for the seeds of change to grow.

Virtue is invited into our lives like Abraham entertaining angels when we suspend our disbelief and temporarily abandon ourselves to the imaginary. So, how do we, as adults, accept that fairy stories can be written for us? How do we engage with imaginative stories and how do we play? These are questions that have many possible answers, but I think that there are a few ways to cultivate our creative dreaming without being attached to the tyranny of practicality.

First, let us re-imagine our utilitarian tendencies. It is admittedly difficult in a world in which so many metaphors for life come back to monetary value: we spend or waste time, we earn respect, and so on. An economics that depends on the predictable assignment of worth forgoes so much possibility. The pearl of great price remains unsearched for, the one lost sheep abandoned for the sake of the 99. It is a system which makes perfect sense, and yet has the potential to throw the baby out with the bathwater; as so many fairy stories suggest, the truly special, good or magical comes in what is initially disregarded as plain or even worthless.

Second, let us be unafraid to play and seem foolish. Taking ourselves too seriously is the bane of many relationships; our relationships to each other, the self, the earth and the divine become tainted by a furrowed brow. The venerable C.S. Lewis said, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” I reckon that seeking the company of children on a regular basis is a good discipline, as well as the company of the non-human world. I highly recommend rediscovering sense by trying to absorb pleasure from the simplest of tactile experiences. Prescribable, too, would be physical play without aim.  We adults run for the endorphins, work out for health or a certain body-image. But what about simply rejoicing in the autonomy of our physical selves in this miraculous and magical world?

Ultimately, however, we can’t help but imagine. Our imagination fills in the gaps in our knowledge so that we can have a “complete” picture of the world. The informed imagination is a powerful one and a weak imagination is born of ignorance. So then, let us read, let us listen, let us create. Let us step outside ourselves, do the things that make us less self-conscious adults.  I again defer to L’Engle’s genius to elucidate this idea: “The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline… his self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.”

So let’s make room in our hearts for the impossible, let’s kindle our childhood imaginations. Let’s be adults who abandon the desire to be very grown up, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

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