Our imagination surpasses our gifts of reasoning and logic

The man who has no imagination has no wings (Muhammad Ali)

The man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, Muhammad Ali, praised the value of imagination when he said, “The man who has no imagination has no wings.” After all, how can we rise to towering heights, other than by the power of our imagination? Our imagination allows us to soar above all limits. It is no longer good enough to say, “the sky is the limit,” for we need to see beyond the sky if we are to travel to the corners of the universe.

Look around you. What do you see? Office buildings, automobiles, computers, cell phones, all manner of wonders. Where did they come from? We owe their creation to humanity’s imagination. Our imagination is a gift from God and evidence that we are made in His image, for it makes us co-creators of the universe. Henry Miller (1891-1980) believed that imagination was a defining characteristic of God, for he wrote, “Imagination is the voice of daring. If there is anything Godlike about God, it is that. He dared to imagine everything.”

Our imagination surpasses our gifts of reasoning and logic. For rational thinking can tell us only what is possible or impossible. But imagination knows no such limits. It can see the unseen, imagine the unimaginable, and fathom the unfathomable. So, it’s not surprising that Albert Einstein (1879 ~ 1955) wrote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 ~ 1778) expressed the same idea in fewer words: “The world of reality has its bounds; the world of imagination is boundless.”

Did you ever walk alone at night through a dimly lit alley and spot a giant rat lunging at you — only to discover, with great relief, that it was not a rat, but your own shadow? That is an example of the negative power of imagination. Such an error of judgement is relatively harmless because it takes place for just a moment. But when the deception is permanent, imagination ceases to be a valued friend, and becomes a treacherous enemy. An example is a young woman suffering from anorexia nervosa. When she looks into a mirror, her imagination sees a grotesquely fat woman. So, hoping to solve her ‘weight problem,’ she unwittingly starves herself.

When imagination runs amok, there are terrible consequences. For instance, Palestinians imagine Jews wish to humiliate them, so live with hatred; Jews imagine Palestinians wish to slaughter them, so live in fear. The result is a bloodbath spanning decades. How can we break the cycle of violence? How can we end the tit-for-tat killings? It is only when both sides can see that which doesn’t exist: peace, security, mutual respect and prosperity. Imaginative leaders can bring the nonexistent into existence.

That’s why John F. Kennedy said on June 28, 1963 in his Dublin, Ireland address, “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.” The best way to begin the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is for both sides of the conflict to IMAGINE what it is like to be in the shoes of the opposing side. Unless we can imagine the suffering of others, we can never know compassion and understanding.

A young man may join a construction company with the hope of increasing his earning potential. But what if before stepping across a five-story-high steel girder, he were to imagine that he might trip and fall to his death? Wouldn’t he be immobilized by fear? Wouldn’t his career choices be limited? This is another example how imagination can harm us.

Emile Coué (1857 ~ 1926), one of the world’s leading experts on the laws of suggestion had this to say, “When the imagination and willpower are in conflict, are antagonistic, it is always the imagination which wins, without any exception.” In other words, I may WANT TO walk across a steel girder, but if I’m afraid I will fall off and get killed, it will be impossible for me to do so. Imagination is always more powerful than willpower. To prevent imagination from holding me back, I need to use it by focusing on the positive, rather than the negative. Instead of imagining I might fall, I need to imagine that with practice I might overcome my fear and learn to walk across the girders. If, in my mind’s eye, I can see myself practicing and see myself succeeding, I will succeed.

This is why sports psychologists teach athletes how to visualize their success. Jack Nicklaus explains how he used this technique, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. First, I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I see the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there is a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.”

The way to harness the power of imagination is to practice visualization. That is, to practice seeing in your mind’s eye what you wish to achieve, before achieving it. Practicing visualization makes you proactive. It puts you in charge. Rather than hoping your imagination works for you instead of against you, you seize the reins and control your destiny.

In a controlled experiment, basketball players were told to shoot a number of free throws. Their score of baskets were then recorded. They were then divided into three groups. The first group was told not to practice. The second, to practice an hour a day. The third, to practice an hour a day, not on the basketball court, but in their imagination. After 30 days, they were retested. The first group, not surprisingly, made no progress. The second group, who practiced every day, showed a 24% gain in the number of baskets. What about group three, who practiced not on the court but in their mind? They increased their score by 23%! Such is the power of visualization. When we practice it, we avoid reliving an unsuccessful past by preliving a successful future.

It takes as much imagination to create failure as to create success, to create confidence as to create fear, and to create joy as to create suffering. So, why wouldn’t we want to use this power for good? You are what you imagine yourself to be. So, if you are unhappy with your present circumstances, it’s time to start imagining something far more positive. It’s time to follow the advice of Robert H. Schuller who wrote, “Let your imagination release your imprisoned possibilities.”