Be careful how you imagine the world, they say, because that it is how it will be! It's true. I can imagine myself into a mood of anger or despair with little effort. What was an imaginary situation can quickly colour all my feelings. In the reverse of this, imagining a good can sometimes lift my spirits just as effectively and rapidly as letting up the blind in a darkened room lets the light pour in.
Why, then, am I so much less inclined to think of the good?
Walking to the train, it is easy to think ill thoughts and descend into a dark mood. It is almost a thing of comfort- self pity might be a good name. There is something habitual in this imagining oneself against the world, and unfairly treated. Is there some kind of self justification all of this? Is it that I am right, and I am "ok" because I didn't do wrong even though they treat me so?
It comes from the alienation I felt as a child, the endless teasing and bullying and exclusion. And from the discovery that if I were good, I could at least gain adult approval. I was good because I topped the class. I was good because I respected my teachers and was well behaved. In grade 5 we had a craze for little shanghais made from tie wire and laccy bands. You could shoot a paper pellet right across the class room. After a week or so the teachers took action. Kim Walton and another Prefect took mine from me at morning recess. The headmaster arrived in class after recess, and demanded any remaining shanghais be handed over. All the kids said I had one. I said Kim took mine at recess, and they all said I was a liar. Mr Rosenthal said "I have never known Andrew to tell a lie," and believed me. See how well I remember it forty years later! And of course, that incident alienated me all the more....
When things are hard and wrong I am well trained to think that people are not fair but that, even so someone will come and rescue me. I will be seen to be good. It only works if you are a kid and there are some good adults around, and not always then! Otherwise it is a only a dream for life is not fair or just. Workplaces are full of bullies and people who are simply bad.
So why is it so tempting to remain in such a place, let alone imagine it more strongly?
For a small boy on a farm, imagination was the only escape. Leaving the farm each day meant entering a hostile environment. Imagination was life giving. It was also reflecting the reality of what was for me as a kid! At best I would be ignored, or the subject of only a few snide remarks.
Another reason is that it feels good to be the centre of attention, even if that centre of attention is "only" imagined. To be the centre of attention, even if persecuted, is better than being un-noticed. Self pity is not merely "feeling sorry for ourself" whatever that means. It is an act of power which puts us at the centre. It is a "quick fix" way of dealing with a person or an issue which is a problem. Immediately, I am in the right and "on top." Of course it is no answer in reality, and to go with the imagination would cause more problems. Such negative imagination sucks up energy, and has the potential to breed more pain. It usually is building power on a fictitious foundation of no reality. I find the temptation comes to fall back into this habit when I am weak in heart- when I am already not feeling good about myself. Then it is harder to think a new thing. It is easier to regress into old habits. Negative they may be, but they "fit" and are familiar, offering a certain comfort. The only solutions so far seem to be these: distraction, positive imagination, and just action.
When nothing works, sometimes I can simply "change the subject" for myself and begin to think about something else. And sometimes, remembering and focussing on the good of the person or situation with which I am struggling can also help. It challenges the old negative imagination, and can re-ignite my empathy and friendship for the one with whom I struggle. Finally, when I act, seeking to act according to what is just and real, rather than my bad imagination is vital.
I hope one day there will be a new me. At present, I can barely imagine it.
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