March 02, 2003

On Imagination

For some time now, Jane and I have been pondering a quality that we've noticed that some people have and some don't. While we could easily agree on which of the people we know have it and which don't, we'd been quite incapable of putting a name to it, and so for a long time we referred to it as "that quality that some people have and some don't."

Oh, there were symptoms we could point to. I have a much easier time talking with people who possess this quality. They get my jokes. More to the point, they can tell when I'm joking and when I'm not. They are easy to talk to, because they are quick to see the implications of things they or other people say. They seem to have brighter eyes than other people. They tend to have a way of looking beyond the surface of things from a sideways direction that manifests itself in quips and humorous asides. Usually, they aren't benign. (I don't mean to imply that, being "not benign", they must therefore be malign. It's just like when C.S. Lewis says of Aslan that he's not a tame lion. Aslan isn't benign. Neither are any of the members of my family.) People who have "it" tend to be clever and innovative, and good at solving problems. Not all of the software engineers I know have it--but the best ones all do.

On the other hand, there are some things that clearly are not part of this quality. Intelligence, to begin with: I know many extremely bright people who don't have "it". And amiability for another: I know dozens of very nice, friendly people who don't have "it", whatever "it" is.

But Jane and I were out on a date the other night, and as we were waiting for our table we were discussing a person of our acquaintance who manifestly doesn't have "it". And I happened to say, "And of course she has no imagination whatsoever." Jane agreed, and in a sudden rush of insight I said, "That's it! That's the quality that some people have and some don't! Imagination!"

That bald statement probably doesn't convey the depth of excitement I felt as that word snapped into place. And after we'd gone through our lists people of who do and don't have "it" and had agreed that "imagination" was the mot juste, I realized that I'd often seen the word used just that way--in books. How often have you read about one character who comments about another something like, "He's an outstanding officer--but he has no imagination at all." It's the ability to look at things from more than direction: to move beyond the obvious answer, and pick up the situation in your head and turn it around.

Usually when one person calls another imaginative, they mean that either the second person writes fiction, or simply daydreams a lot--two things the speaker never does himself. I'm not sure that imagination in that sense is quite what I'm talking about--but perhaps it is, especially the daydreaming part. But more on that later.

Posted by Will Duquette at March 2, 2003 02:23 PM