It’s just a kids book, I thought. I won’t get anything out of it.
Today my sixth grade class finished reading Bridge to Terabithia, so we started watching the film. Normally, I’m not a fan of children’s films, and I guess the film itself warrants no outstanding attention, but while I was watching it, something clicked.
We were in fifth or sixth grade and my best friend, Dave, and I were behind his house. I was on the cusp of being allowed to watch PG-13 films and I was dying to see the Lord of the Rings series. I had caught five minutes on a flatscreen at Sam’s Club and it was irreversibly etched on my brain.
It happened to be the scene in the Mines of Moria when the Fellowship is battling some orcs and trolls. My attention was especially drawn to Legolas, who fired his arrows with laser precision while doing some sort of medieval parkour. He was not only the heartthrob of every female viewer, but the idol of every tweenage boy.
Behind Dave’s house was an open space with a creek running down the middle. In the winter months, the reeds hedging the creek lay flat and gray. To us, however, they became the setting of the most epic battles we’d ever fight. Looking back on those days which slowly sunk into colder and darker evenings, we would lose track of time swinging our branches around and slaying orcs. (We fought over who got to be Legolas every time.)
The crazy thing is, looking back on those days, I don’t only remember the physical scenery, but also the exact things I was envisioning there with us as well. I remember the armies of orcs the two of us would singlehandedly (doublehandedly?) overcome. I remember how we would make our way through the hearts of mountains without ever leaving the field. I recall the trolls disguised as trees which we toppled with ease after a few minutes of hacking at them.
It’s strange, but I remember my imaginings as well as I remember the reality.
Anyone who has seen Pan’s Labyrinth, any Narnia flick, or read Calvin & Hobbes sleeps in one of two camps: You either think all the magical elements are meant to only exist in the child’s imagination, or you think they actually happen and the film predicates itself around the reality of the whimsical world. I think people who fall into the latter category believe this for a deeper reason:
We so badly want it to be true.
It’s not because it makes for a better or worse plot; it’s because we want to believe that our five senses aren’t telling us the whole story. We want an adventure to live and giants to topple. We don’t just want the bad guy to be a mean stepmother. We want the key given by the goblin to actually lead to another world. We want the stuffed tiger to actually be alive.
Like the horse says in The Velveteen Rabbit, “What is real?”
Is it that which exists in the imaginations of children, or is it limited to what is observable by everyone? In that case, are sunsets real, as blind people have no evidence of their existence? Are any of Beethoven’s symphonies real, since they can’t be sensed by the deaf?
I know I’m not exactly making a rational case, but a poetic one. Maybe I just want the orcs slain by Dave and I to count for something. And maybe that’s exactly why imagination is so important in the development of human beings. If nothing else, it taught Dave and I about battle, valor and victory. Our fantasy-scapes allowed us to craft worlds in ways reality does not. I’d like to think that experimenting with imagination leads to thinking bigger later in life.
I’ve lived all over the world and few places have had the same type of magic as the cold gray field behind Dave’s house. Not because of what was actually there, but because of how we saw it.
There’s one more thing I’d like to recapture from those days. Despite the fact that dozens of houses backed to that field, and therefore could see us, we hacked away at the trees and the ice and the ground nonetheless. We didn’t care who saw us slaughtering orcs by the dozens because we were in Middle Earth, not Littleton, Colorado.
I wish I still cared so little what other people think.
I wish my imagination still existed outside the boundaries of the opinions of others. Maybe recovering some of that free-spirited indifference will help our imaginations to once again expand to their proper size. I’m pretty sure that a big imagination and caring what others think of you are mutually exclusive. You can’t have both. Dave and I certainly didn’t care what people thought of us as we ran around with our sticks and wet sneakers.
A pastor in Chicago once gave a lecture on The Christian Imagination, and it is still one of those mind-shattering half hours. He defines imagination as the ability to see the invisible. For instance, you can even be imaginative about next month’s vacation: You don’t see it, yet it is a real thing. In this case, it will be a real thing; it will be visibly manifest.
As Christians, are we as imaginative as we could be? Are we good at being aware of the invisible and acting as if it is real? Just like a future vacation, we must always keep in mind the coming reality of things unseen (Hebrews 11) and live as if they are real.
When we lose our imaginations, we lose our witness to the world.
Part of me is still in that field, killing imaginary foes alongside Dave. I’m dying to see like that again. I’m trying to live like that again.
May we be folks who disregard what the world thinks of us as we seek to live with reckless imagination. May we train our minds to see abundant invisible things and communicate them to the world, to the glory of God.