Imagination as an Agent of Healing (Part 1 of 3)


Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives… Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.

—Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

I had an imaginary friend when I was little. I don’t remember his name, but I remember what he looked like. He was green, about the size of a Smurf, with a round nose and a mushroom-cap instead of hair. He lived in my fireplace, which was always empty due to my mom’s asthma. As a lonely only child, he helped me pass the hours when neighborhood friends couldn’t play. He used to send me on missions around my house to save the world from Rita Repulsa, the villain from my favorite show, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. By the time I came back from my missions, the ache of loneliness was forgotten. I was the hero, and the hero is never alone.

My imaginative nature in my childhood eventually grew into a soul that channels its wounds into story. I wrote two novels after my friend’s death because sometimes writing felt like the only way I could keep breathing. But once the grief had cleared from a cloud to a gray haze, my curiosity got the best of me. Why did writing feel so much like healing? It wasn’t just writing, though, it was reading books and listening to songs and watching movies. I found my grief was known by a nameless man wandering beyond the maps. And that a young boy named Kubo knew there was still joy within this consuming ache. 

My search for understanding drove me to read about how painting, writing, singing, dancing, and even playing are used in counseling to work toward healing. But as I read, I quickly learned that it’s imagination that is the agent of healing in creative expression, not the act of creating. Making something doesn’t stitch the wound. It’s imagination’s waking that begins to staunch the bleeding.

If it is imagination that does the healing, then why doesn’t all art heal? Why doesn’t every book I read ease the pain of my wounds the way others do? Why doesn’t every song echo in my veins as the chords roll? What makes some art healing and other art simply pleasing? The answer, I think, has to do with both the creator and the recipient of the art.

Artists are not always healed people, but they can teach us how to engage the transformative aspects of emotional upheaval rather than experience the madness that occurs when imagination turns against itself. Art shows how the difficulty can contain its cure if channeled into life-affirming expression.

—Shaun McNiff, Art Heals: How Creativity Cures the Soul

Those who create healing works of art are those who have learned to commiserate with themselves, who see the broken parts of themselves and do not flee, but grieve. They walk this life-long cycle, actively engaging in self-compassion with each new wave of sorrow that seeing one’s own brokenness brings. And in this grief, the imagination works to heal as the artist creates. Their work does not need to reflect a hint of the pain from which it is was born. Imagination only cares about the process. But the artist’s work must be forged in honesty. It must be born of commiserating with wounds of the soul instead of intellectualizing or distancing. It is a generous, hospitable act by the artist, one that works to mend the fissures in both the creator and the recipient.

If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant, ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly… The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists. We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.

—George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination”

Have you ever gone from simply drinking in a work of art to suddenly feeling known by it? There is a moment when a line from a story slips from our brain to our soul or a little flower in a painting reminds us that we’re not alone. And when this happens, something shifts. We are no longer looking at something but are watching something happen—we are bearing witness to imagination’s mending. It’s never been a panacea; a story has never cured anxiety and a song has never halted grief. But sharp edges are dulled. Joy feels less daunting. A micro-mending occurs, leaving us far from healed, but better than before imagination did its work.

The imagination plants the inconceivable in our minds and makes our hearts long for it to be true.

Hannah Mitchell

In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination,” George MacDonald speaks of the necessity of each person taking their own meaning from his fairytales, that the reader’s meaning may be even better than his own. I think, though, that there’s more to it than each person simply taking their own meaning. There is truth to be felt when imagination is awakened, truth that is unique to the heart that is aching. What if the reason that favorite quotes from a book or lyrics from a song vary from person-to-person is that the imagination knows what it needs in order to do its healing work? Just as the brain pulls blood from the limbs to survive when the body is dying, what if the brain knows what it needs to heal through art? What if some art makes us feel known not only because of the creator’s hospitality and generosity, but because we know deep in our soul that we are bearing witness to a sacred healing—a healing we often did not know we needed, but our imagination did?

One sentence lurking innocently in MacDonald’s “The Fantastic Imagination” captures both the glory and the terror of art’s healing. MacDonald states that “everyone…who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.” The glory of art’s healing comes in our imagination knowing what we need and seeking it to begin the mending within us. It grabs at sentences or brushstrokes or chords that can bind our unique wounds with a tenderness no other can know. But sometimes before the gauze is unrolled, terror can overtake us and halt the work imagination has begun. Because when pain has been raging endlessly inside, it can feel nearly impossible to trust that anything that comes from within us—that a thought, a dream, or even a hope—can be good and might even be true.

It is a brave thing indeed to trust there may yet be good amongst the broken parts of our souls, to believe that maybe a part of ourselves still holds beauty. A body fighting to live on through life’s pain wants to shrink into the safety of what is already known. But the imagination is not safe. It drags us through cloud-fields where raindrop horses prance. It lets us think we can smell the sun and that fairies surely live in the flower garden down the street. It plants the inconceivable in our minds and makes our hearts long for it to be true. In the moments when we feel most lost, the imagination can speak to us in the secret language meant just for our soul. It gives us hope that our pain has been seen by another and known. It makes us feel the impossible: that we are not alone.

Click here to read “Imagination as a Spiritual Practice (Part 2 of 3)” and here to read “Imagination & Kubo and the Two Strings (Part 3 of 3).”

1 Comment

  1. Britney

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful thoughts! I was an only child as well, that spent the majority of my childhood surrounded by imaginary friends, then steeped in story through books. I will carry many of your thoughts with me as I soak up art in the coming days! 

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