No Option But One
August 24, 2022
In a letter to his brother Theo in 1886, Vincent Van Gogh wrote: “It seems to me that you have been suffering to see your youth pass like a drift of smoke, but if it springs up again and comes to life in what you do, nothing has been lost, and the power to work is another youth.”
Some take Van Gogh’s words to mean that staying young means staying active.
But we must remember that it was an artist who wrote these words, so that in his view being active meant being active as an artist. For those who believe — as I do — that the life of the imagination is the essence of our humanity, this is irrefutably true. For those who equate life with being busy, life is reduced to activity of any kind.
Much of this misunderstanding about activity can be traced to what the meaning of work should be. For far too many, work only means earning enough to survive or prosper until retirement — to be profitably active. In brief, you work so that eventually you need not work at all. Retirement is seen by many as ease — a time when consistent effort is not demanded or expected. If work is understood to be what is identified as a job, this conclusion is understandable. Its eventual rewards translate into dreaming of having a time-sharing apartment in Florida, signing up for cruises and spending time at the beach or on the golf course. It’s time to “take it easy.” It’s reminiscent of the tempter’s line in T. S. Eliot’s Murder In The Cathedral: “Be easy, man. Easy men live to eat the best dinners.”
But what if life at its truest is not defined by mere activity — physical or mental — but by the active imagination? For men and women of imagination there is no such thing as retirement. Even if such people may be involved in work that provides them or their families with “a living,” they live fully (and truly) only when occupied by choice with what they love to do — when their imaginations possess them and they become creative.
I have a friend (actually a former student) who was a university professor as well as an associate dean before he recently retired. He is happily married with grown children. All who have known him know that he has always loved working with wood.
He equipped a woodworking shop in his basement for that purpose and made both useful and aesthetic objects out of pine, birch and oak: bookcases, rocking chairs, bookends and statues. Being a woodcraftsman was when he was truly himself — when his imagination guided his actions. After he retired, he emptied his living room of all its furniture and converted it into a woodshop, and working in that woodshop has become his permanent address ever since.
Similarly, I knew one dear and determined woman who was the wife of a submarine commander. Married to a naval officer who was at sea seven months a year, she bore and reared seven children singlehandedly with all the difficulties that that entailed. She was also a talented painter. To be able to combine her life as a mother with the time she needed to paint, her husband built her a studio and attached it to the rear of their home in San Diego. There she painted whenever she chose, but curiously left all her paintings in noticeable ways incomplete as if she were impelled to show that incompleteness for her seemed to be the rule of life where nothing ends the way it should or when. But hers was a life lived as she imagined it from beginning to end.
And, of course, there are times when what awakens the imagination in someone happens in an instant and lasts for a lifetime. Years ago, I met the daughter of a well-known family in Pittsburgh; her father was the Superintendent of Schools who later became Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration. His daughter was at that time about to begin her final year at Wheaton College. While her classmates preferred to spend their summers at Cape Cod or on the Jersey shore, she volunteered to spend her summer working at an orphanage in Tunisia. She found the work so fulfilling that she volunteered to work there the following summer. At some point during that summer she met a young Frenchman who was serving in the French equivalent of the Peace Corps. Before the summer ended, they had found in one another the person with whom they were completely and happily themselves. A few months later they were married in Pittsburgh, returned to their previous work in Tunisia before being transferred to the Congo. Ultimately, they made their home in Montpelier, France. I met her later in France and can truthfully say that she impressed me as a totally fulfilled woman who had lived and was still living the only life she could have imagined for herself. Her life found her, to be sure, but she knew and embraced it when it happened.
One of the most definitive proofs of the primacy of the imagination happens when someone encounters something in life which contradicts or fails to live up to what it was or is supposed (or imagined) to be. One may rightly expect that a certain church official or a political figure (even a President) exhibit a deportment commensurate with his status. In other words, you imagine in advance what the profile of that person should be. When what you imagine is denied by the facts perceived, you are rightly upset, disillusioned, offended.
When life doesn’t live up to our expectations, the imagination may step in again. Marine Gen. Smedley Butler is regarded by historians and Marines themselves as one of the most distinguished officers in Marine Corps history. Twice awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he declined the second. After he retired from the service in 1940, he became more and more aware that the Marine Corps was being manipulated as a front for many business interests in the Caribbean. For a man to whom the mission of the Marine Corps was a central and sacred part of American life, it was devastating for him to learn when he returned to civilian life that the marines were often used to protect business interests and projects in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua. He eventually summarized his suspicions and accusations in a book entitled War is a Racket. In other words, he was awakened to the relationship of commerce and the military industrial complex, and his imagination spoke thereafter for what he truly believed that the United States and the Marine Corps stood for.
It is ultimately the mission of educators (parents included, first and foremost) to awaken students to the fact that knowledge is static unless and until it is given life by the imagination. A person may know the meaning of words and know how to spell them flawlessly, but they only come to life when he speaks or writes what he knowingly feels.
The imagination makes that possible. For 43 years I was a faculty member at a university (Duquesne), and I realized that education (primarily undergraduate education) is where the stimulation of the imagination of students is crucial.
Those who think otherwise usually regard students as mere trainees being readied for the marketplace. The goal is not intellectual or imaginative freedom but mere technical competence for what the market demands. But awakening the imagination through the study of literature, history and philosophy inspires the student to inquire, wonder and think beyond appearances and cliches. How many have ever asked how a blind man (Homer) could write a book about war (The Iliad) and the return from war (The Odyssey) that people have found profoundly and irrefutably true for more than 2,000 years? How could a Latin teacher in his late forties write poems that convey how a boy in his teens feels in the English countryside, but A. E. Housman did it in A Shropshire Lad?
Both Homer and Housman wrote timelessly because they were able to put the visions of their imaginations into words. It’s the same imagination that allows us to imagine a life before we live it or inspires a novelist to become a character in a novel or dares someone to do something that only he imagines can be done.
Consider Charles Lindbergh’s flight from New Jersey to Paris in 1927. Other pilots had tried it and failed. Lindbergh believed that a light, single-wing and single-engine plane while being fueled by hand by the pilot from extra fuel on board could, weather permitting, do it. And what he imagined proved correct despite the fact that Lindbergh himself did not sleep for more than 55 hours (combining pre-flight preparation and in-flight hours) in order to do it. If ever an extraordinary feat was accomplished by the union of imagination and stamina (nearly two and a third days under stress without sleep!), this was it. But without imagining the act in advance, no flight would have happened.
All of the instances I have cited to this point underscore the validity of one French author’s claim: “Imagination is everything; knowledge is nothing.” By choosing what we do and defining what we see, it reveals to ourselves and others who we are.