Imagination: Taking Time to Look

September 27, 1987


Taking Time to Look

For two weeks I have been talking about imagination, that distinctly human faculty that makes time and space travelers out of all of us. We can close our eyes and go anyplace we want without physical movement — back to a house where long ago we were children, back to a friendship or an unforgettable trip with people who are now gone, forever. Or we can create by imagination, as artists do, a reality that existed first only in the mind. Consider, for a moment, how Wagner wrote some of his greatest operas. He had no theater, no orchestra, no chorus. He could not hear the operas as they would really sound, orchestrated and rendered with many voices. With only his own piano, he had to imagine all the rest — and out of that inspired imagination he brought Tristan and Isolde to life. My premise in these sermons is that great art and quality of life itself both depend on creative imagination.
In the introductory sermon I shared Quaker novelist Jessamyn West’s marvelous description of how crucial it is for children to develop their imaginations. C. S. Lewis says the same thing in different words in one of his finest books [Mere Christianity ]. “Very often,” he says, “the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grownups — playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretence of being grownups helps them to grow up in earnest.”
I have chosen to speak of imagination from a pulpit because it also gives us the power to do something even more important: to escape the prison of self and journey into the heart of another human being. I recently came across a book published about four years ago by a man named John Maxwell, and found by a lucky coincidence still another example of the power of imagination. He tells about people who made parachutes during the Second World War, packing them by hand in a tedious, painstaking process. The workers crouched over sewing machines and stitched for eight hours every day. The endless line of fabric was always the same color, and in boring repetition they folded, packed and stacked each parachute exactly as they had done the one before and would do the one after. So how did they stand it? Well, every morning one of their managers gathered them as a group, reminded them that each parachute was meant to save a life, and asked them to think how they would feel if they knew that each parachute they worked on might one day be strapped to the back of their brother, their father, or their son. I didn’t know this story when I saw some of those parachutes drift down from the sky during that war, but if I had I would have praised in a silent prayer the power of imagination that helped keep some of my comrades safe.
You have heard me mention Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who is becoming one of the most respected and sought-after preachers in this country. Here she is, in a published sermon, lamenting the loss of imagination in a frantically busy culture. “We are all dreamers,” she says, “but dreamers have fallen upon hard times…. schooled in science and philosophy; we have learned to trust what we can handle and prove….Only saints and children still believe their dreams will come true.” I’m especially glad she mentions saints, by which she means not just a few famous Christians canonized by the church but all the ordinary Christians, like us, whose imaginations keep us supplied with hope and whose imaginations allow us to inhabit the skin of other people and share their feelings. Without it, we blunder through life causing casualties.
So much so that if if I were hiring a teacher for young children, one of the first things I’d look for would be signs of a sensitive imagination. I still remember distinctly a day, years ago, when a son came home in tears because his teacher had about as much imagination as a cement mixer. He later wrote about it; I’ll let you hear some of the the story in his own words. “I was in the second grade [and] in love with a girl named Rosemary. At least I thought I was. I imagined that she would eventually fall in love with me, we would date for about 15 years and then get married and have lots of kids. She had long blonde hair that flew out away from her head on the merry-go-round and seemed to defy gravity. In fact, everything about her seemed to defy the natural order. She didn’t walk, she floated. She didn’t speak, she sang. She was a vision who inspired visions. I just had to let her know how I felt.”
He goes on to tell how he devised a love ballot, a simple questionnaire to find out whether Rosemary returned his affections. Under DO YOU LOVE ME? in block letters, he drew two boxes, one marked YES, the other NO. “Notice,” he says, “that there was no box marked, JUST WANT TO BE FRIENDS. I already had that answer and didn’t care much for it. I was looking for a thumbs up, or thumbs down, please. Guys do this. We set ourselves up for misery. I had everything figured out except how to pass the note without getting caught. The teacher intercepted it, walked to the front of the class with the note held triumphantly aloft, and said: Robin, shall I read this to the class?
“I remember….feeling the blood rush to my head and make me dizzy. The eyes of everyone in the class were fixed on me, which when you’re a kid feels like an actual force exerting itself. ‘Please,’ I begged. ‘Don’t read it.’ But she did. She unfolded it, and very slowly and deliberately read it to the class. And they laughed. Everyone laughed, and the sound of it was awful. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Rosemary, but I remember thinking that even the box marked NO would be preferable to this.”
It’s easy to smile at that moment, and call it trivial, but it was not trivial to a child’s heart and the child-become-a-man still remembers the pain of it. Was it worth it? Not on your life, and an imaginative teacher would have handled it another way — an admonition in private, an hour after school, anything but public humiliation for a minor indiscretion. When the powerful have the powerless at their mercy, they need to see with the eyes of the heart — or get into some other line of work.
Another splendid preacher, Frederick Buechner, has a word for us about the importance of imagination. Listen: “Imagining is perhaps as close as humans get to creating something out of nothing the way God is said to. It is a power that to one degree or another everybody has, or can develop, like whistling. Like muscles, it can be strengthened through practice and exercise…..If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hot-air grate. The two children chirping like birds in the sandbox. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. The old man staring into space in the nursing home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak , but the words they do not speak….When Jesus spoke of all ‘that labor and are heavy laden,’ he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.”
Taking time to look — that’s what I called this sermon, and I can’t think of many things more worthy of praise than the act of entering sympathetically into the life of others by the power of imagination. My own favorite illustration of how sad it is when we fail to “see” each other, blinded, perhaps, by familiarity and routine and busyness, is one you have heard before but lives would be changed for the better if it were heard many times. So I make no apology for repeating it, and especially because I am not likely again to have the opportunity of sharing it with you. It comes from Thornton Wilder’s famous play, Our Town , in which he takes a loving look at the daily lives in a small New England village called Grover’s Corners. By imagination, we are invited to enter the homes of several families and watch the age-old rituals of love and marriage unfold.
In the last act, a young wife named Emily Gibbs dies at the birth of her second child and joins the other dead in the town cemetery. They sit on wooden chairs lined up in rows on stage, and as they talk with one another we feel their growing detachment from their life on earth. Suddenly Emily breaks in on their talk with her agonized realization that living people do not adequately “see” one another, that in life’s rush they are shut up in little prisons of mundane concerns. They forget that time is not endless, and in their preoccupations they lose moments which cannot ever come back.
The dramatist brings that thought to life by having Emily decide, after 14 years in heaven, that she’d like to go back and live part of her life over. The Stage Manager warns her against trying this. He says some have done it, but have always come back quickly — deeply troubled to see how blind the living can be. Emily insists, however, that she will choose a happy day, her 12th birthday, and so the Stage Manager rather reluctantly makes the arrangements. She can have that whole day on earth again with her family, living it exactly as she lived it years before. The only difference will be that she will watch her old self and her family with the eyes of her new self, and she will see what neither she nor they could see then.
When she arrives to take her temporary place among the living, her father is busy, as usual, with his work. Her mother calls upstairs to Emily’s brother, Wally, kisses Emily absent-mindedly, and frets a little about how Emily eats her breakfast and whether she remembers to chew her bacon slowly. For the mother, this is a perfectly normal day; Emily is still alive, and as far as her mother knows she will be alive long after the mother is dead. Mrs. Webb tells her daughter that she has a present from her aunt, and a postcard album from a boy named George Gibbs, who must have brought it over very early because it was on the doorstep with the milk.
Emily is deeply moved as she picks up the album, and suddenly she realizes that she cannot stand this new knowledge of the way people live in the same house and do not really see one another or know how precious the moments are. She whispers to the Stage Manager that she cannot go on, but she turns for a moment to plead with her mother to see her, really see her, through the dimming haze of routine. Because it is a dream sequence, Mrs. Webb cannot hear her daughter as we do, and goes on stirring the oatmeal while Emily pleads: “Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I’m dead…..You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs…..” She thinks of her brother, whom her mother had just called to come to breakfast, and remembers what happened to him later. “Wally’s dead, too, Mama. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about — don’t you remember? But just for a moment now we’re all together. Just for a moment, we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” You will never hear, from anybody’s sermon, better advice so please find a permanent place in your heart for Emily’s hard-won wisdom: “Just for a moment now we’re all together. Just for a moment, we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.”
Emily turns to the Stage Manager and cries out that life goes too fast. “We don’t have time to look at one another.” She asks to be taken back, but before she leaves for the last time she wants to say goodbye to things she had not seen clearly enough herself, to ordinary simple things that are taken for granted until one no longer has them. So she says, “Goodbye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up.” She has a final question for the Stage Manager: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live? Every, every minute?” He says, “No,” pauses for a moment, and then adds: “The saints and poets maybe — they do some.”
I have liked that coupling since the first time I heard it. The saints and the poets, those among us who have in common an extra helping of the gift of imagination — they are the ones who take time to look, as the man did who wrote this timeless play. There never was an “Our Town,” of course, except in the imagination of Thornton Wilder, from whose fancy it was born onto a stage. But when you see it, your own imagination stirs and stretches, and you know for a moment or so how one ought to value life. And a little more than that, I think. It makes you understand that when Jesus said the first and greatest commandment was love, what he meant was: Take time to look at one another.
Gracious God, open our eyes. Amen.