“As truths are the fictions of the rational, so fictions are the truths of the imaginal.” —James Hillman
When my daughter, 9, recently unpacked her suitcase and discovered that she had left her oldest friend, a pink bunny named Bunny, 9, in a San Diego hotel room, she lost her mind. Here, I choose my words carefully. She lost her mind. Or a big part of it. The rich, important part.
I once caught her talking to her bike. “You are a very good bike, you know? Yeah. Uh-huh. Of course I will ride you. A good bike makes little girls happy and happy girls love to ride good bikes. I like your horn. Are you hungry? I will ask my daddy for a treat and then we’ll go for a ride. Okay? I will be right back but don’t you dare go riding without me because that would be silly. Okay? Good!”
And once, after gulping down a refreshing glass of red juice on a very hot day, she exhaled with a satisfied Ahhhh, held the purple cup to her face, and said with solemn sincerity, “Thank you, cup.”
I’m not relaying these stories as cute little anecdotes about the whimsical nature of childhood. Rather, I want to assert with the same solemn sincerity my daughter uses when talking to cups that the imagination is real. Without going into lengthy investigations into the history of ontology (the philosophy of what things are) and religion, allow me for the sake of brevity to point out that, at some catastrophic point in our pasts (both cultural and personal), the imagination, once an aspect of our experience as viable as any other, was demoted to being the opposite of what’s real as opposed to being a part of what’s real.
Everything speaks to us, yearning to be heard.
But it’s just our imagination, right? You see how we do that? We say it’s “just” our imagination. And when our children talk to bikes and cups and form intimate relationships with stuffed animals and invisible friends, we smile and chuckle because it’s “just” their imagination. But the imagination hasn’t always been thus degraded by being “just” so much nonsense in comparison to what’s reallier real. It was once collectively considered JUST as real as the scientifically measured stuff that monopolizes reality today.
And to what end? Well watch the news. Take a look outside. And ask yourself this: If we all believed, and acted as if, the myriad things that inhabit our lives were sentient; that our bikes and cups did talk to us, not through audible waves that vibrated our ear drums, but through our newly restored and esteemed imagination; that we genuinely do hear the whispers of our dead friends and relatives; that the whole world, all of it, was as alive as you and me; that, indeed, you and me were but lively voices in this enormous choir of liveliness; and we crowned it all off, this big teeming lively thing, with some fancy word like psyche or anima or soul or God—again, if we believed all this and acted as if it were true, how then would the world appear when we looked outside? Of what then would the news consist?
Put more simply, what if we were as kind to each other and the things of this world as my little girl is to her bicycle? Is racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental crisis, etc. and so on, even conceivable in a world where we feel sincere gratitude for the cup that provides our refreshing red juice?
Can you imagine?
These ideas would be certifiably insane (indeed, what is insanity but a way to label and marginalize an imagination that won’t cooperate?) if we didn’t have constant everyday proof of their reality parading right before our eyes in the children we’re raising. They are living examples of the way things really and truly are until those ways are stamped out of us by the tyranny of growing up.
And that’s precisely why my daughter lost her mind when she lost her bunny. I don’t want to minimize my daughter’s living relationship with Bunny by abstracting it into some deeper issue, so let me be clear. Her relationship with Bunny is real and it’s the primary thing. They’ve grown up together, shared all their nights together, and they’ve maintained a lively dialogue since the days my daughter first emerged into the evocative power of language. However, because she is 9 and approaching the appalling threshold where rationality begins to assume its imperial dominance (in our culture), the loss of Bunny amounted to nothing short of my daughter losing one of her last portals to a vital world where imagination retains its airy substance and becoming trapped in the rigid adult world of the way things are. And she lost her mind. She couldn’t sleep. She was inconsolable. Just like us, back when the reality of the imaginal vanished into being just our imagination.
On a happier note, Bunny has been discovered asleep beneath the hotel bed in San Diego. She is right now flying home, first class, where a raucous tea party will be had with a caterpillar, a guitar, and the ghost of my dead friend, Skip.
Originally published in Brain, Child Magazine