I watch my kids play and they’re in their own little world. Then someone does some bullshit and they’re back in my world, screaming, but nevermind. For all intents and purposes, they’re in never-never land.
My children’s imaginations are so real. Their stuffed animals have names and backstories, and all hell breaks lose if one is left behind. They believe in fairies, Santa Claus, and yakas. To them, animals have as much (or more) personality than any person. They’re transfixed by stories as if they were the news. I asked my daughter which religion she liked and she said all of them.
I watch them play and I think, how dull and dreary am I. I had an imagination once, but then it went and died. Here I am weaving through traffic, handing paper money to a toll booth, plotting a path through the city back home, just living in this dismal and deadly ‘real’ world. But then I realized. I am imagining. I’m imagining all the time.
Traffic rules, money, maps, they’re all made up. They’re social imaginations. They’re things that adults imagine together, and in this way they become real. Road rules, money, borders, nations—none of these things are inherently real, but they become real by social consensus. This nightmare is the sum total of our insipid dreams.
Raising children is taking their personal imagining and slowly hammering into the social one. You stop thinking that animals have feelings and just torture and eat them without a second thought. You stop believing in Santa Claus giving children things and believe in an ‘invisible hand’ that says you can’t. We trade our colorful dreams for a bleak reality and call this growing up.
And we just have to do it, because social reality will run us over, cage us, or kills us if we get it wrong. While social reality is made up, the consequences of ignoring it are very real. That’s why we hold children’s hands when they cross the street. Should children be able to run around without getting mowed down by someone’s metal living room? Absolutely, but that’s not the way it is.
We don’t think about it, but our adult imagination is working overtime everyday. We go out onto the road protected only by paint, light, and our shared illusions about what they mean. We trust in numbers, in nations, and numerous things that aren’t real except in our imaginings. And it all works because we believe that it works.
Growing up is becoming a cog in this machine. Your imagination is still there. It’s just caught up with crossing the street and buying food and not getting beaten or caged, all the things we try to protect children from. It is only within the barbed wire playground of adulthood that children are able to play. They can only imagine unreality within the reality we’ve imagined this way.
Being an adult is not the death of imagination. It’s just the constant imagination of death.
As adults we have to constantly imagine these crazy things called governments, religions, nations, and cultures. They can kill us if we get it wrong, or just randomly. We have to understand laws that no one really knows, customs that are always changing, and borders that no one can see. It might as well be magic spells and magicians, except it’s boring. It’s all deadly, but not even in a cool way.
Benedict Anderson called nations ‘imagined communities’ and religions and cultures are analyzed the same way. The Buddha even broke down the self as an imagined construct (look closely and see). Governments operate based on an imaginary social contract, made real through the ritualized games like elections. Religions and cultures operate on imagined stories that even children find strange.
The adult world is just as imaginary as a child’s, except we hit and do all the things we tell our children not to do. If you mess around on the political playground you get stomped out, and there’s no teachers to pull you away. If you mess with culture or religion nobody says ‘how cute’ and pats your head. You get a fucking slap and you deserve it. You weren’t imagining the right way.
It’s delusional to not be delusional, in the socially approved way.
As we grow up, the power of our imagination doesn’t disappear. It gets socialized. Children become adults when we start imagining things the same way. When we stop zooming around with toy cars and start staying within the lines with real ones. When we stop living in dream castles and start working in capitalist office blocks.
Road traffic, financial commerce, governments, they’re all games, just shitty ones. Like any game, they only work when everyone plays them the same way. Unlike kids games, however, adults ignore everything we tell children and behave like total assholes.
Within capitalist realism, nobody takes turns, nobody shares, and it’s fine for the big kids to hit or grab. Anything else makes you a fool. This social imagination is really a nightmare. Within capitalism, we’ve stopped imagining like children do and behaving like we tell them to. We think that this dreary imagination is just reality, and that things just have to be this way, but they don’t.
We still live much of our lives based on cooperation, kindness, and sharing—outside the tendrils of the marketplace—and we don’t have to look much further than our own children. We can stop teaching them this shit reality and learn something from them. Each child has the power to regenerate the world by just imagining it differently, and that power is still within you.
As an example, children can regenerate entire languages in just one generation. Kids born into migrant or enslaved communities, where people speak mainly incomplete pidgin languages, will fill them in. Within one generation, they can create a fully-fledged language, a creole. Children generate complex grammatical forms, just having fun with their friends and fooling around. That’s the spectacular generative power of human imagination.
Every aspect of society is just symbols given meaning like language, and most of it is far less complex. We all have this spectacular creative power and it doesn’t go away. We just amputate it by saying we live in a capitalist society, or we live within these borders, or we only have this much money, and things just have to be this way. But we’re binding a perfectly good limb. It is still possible for any of us to run and play.
And the fact is, that right now, we have to imagine different. We tell children to learn the way things work, but things aren’t working anymore. As the itinerant professor Anton Chigurh said, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”
Whatever rules we followed, whatever future capitalism said was on the horizon, it’s just bringing us climate collapse. Right now. Kids know we’re killing the animals they love, kids know that people are getting sick, they know that food is getting more insecure.
We’re at a point in history where social reality is crumbling into social collapse and we have to think different. We have to start reimagining at a fundamental level because this isn’t a stable reality anymore. It’s just really fucked.
To be responsible adults, we must now be childlike in our imagination. We never lost this power, we just occupied it with dumb shit like borders, and nations, and capitalism. We must find the childlike power to reimagine all these things, or inevitable lose it all.
I look at my children playing, watching nature documentaries become mortuaries, breathing air that we know is noxious, avoiding cars that we know are death, and I think, what are we so responsibly shepherding them into?
What are we teaching them, to dream the same dismal dream as us? To wake up, as adults, into a complete nightmare? How would they forgive us? They trust us. What are we doing? It is their world to inherit, why don’t we listen to them? Why don’t we be like the children, and dream up a better world for them to live in?