In Hebrew, the root of the word imagination is ד.מ.ה, and the root of the word “human” is א.ד.מ. The similarity between the roots of the words imagination and of humanity is not surprising. One of the things that makes us human, and one of the greatest gifts we have as humans, is our capacity to imagine. To not allow our reality to bind us. To not allow our fears to censor us.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explains the connection between imagination and humanity as both a choice and as a test. Our imagination can elevate us as much as it can bind us. Our role, as humans created in the image of God, is to ensure that the gift of imagination is used to unleash the powers of creativity and possibility.
It’s not easy to access our inner creativity. One reason for this is that while we gain more life experience as we grow older, we also tend to self-censor. Kernels of ideas that can grow into new possibilities are met with an instinctive resistance. We make lists of reasons for why our ideas are not realistic or attainable. We shut them down before we are even able to fully articulate them.
The irony is that we teach our children not to self-censor. “Look,” a five-year-old kid will say to us, showing us a mismatched pile of Lego, “I made a palace!” And most often we will respond with a wow and offer words of encouragement. For children, possibilities are endless, an attitude we encourage. So why is it so hard for us to apply the same attitude to our own creations? Why is it so hard for us to think creatively? Why do we self-censor our ideas? And how might we stop and allow our inner child to flourish?
Accessing Our Imaginative Faculty
When educators are working on a new program or initiative, they often start with trying to fill an itinerary. While this may seem like a practical approach, most times it is a trap: Before they even begin to imagine what is possible, these educators create the boundaries and parameters that will inhibit their thinking. And while, ultimately, we need to be practical and efficient, practicalities and efficiencies are not going to help us imagine new possibilities. They will only inhibit them.
Our inhibitors are all the things that hold us back from doing and being our best. They fuel our inclination to self-censor and form the conditions for internal and external resistance. Some of these inhibitors are real, like not having enough time, money or staff. And some of these inhibitors are perceptions, like what others might think of us and our ideas.
The first step towards reclaiming our ,כח מדמה our imaginative faculty, is by becoming aware of our inhibitors. While these inhibitors cannot be ignored (many of them are real and we need to be practical), we must recognize they prevent us from being open to possibility. To access our creativity, we must list of all the things that will inhibit us from accessing our imagination, acknowledge them, and then set them aside. We must suspend disbelief and return to reality only after we’ve allowed our imagination to run free.
If our inhibitors hold us back from doing and being our best, our boosters do the opposite, allowing our creativity to flourish. Boosters might be space that helps us think expansively, like a a coffee shop or library for some, or a walk in the outdoors for others. Boosters can also be imaginary, where we suspend reality and imagine we have all the resources in the world to do what we seek, so that there’s nothing holding us back. This is a return to יצירה , to creation: the force with which the world was created. The essence of אדם, of humankind.
Commenting on Isaiah 14:14, the Midrash says״,אדם – מלשון אדמה לעליון״ the name Adam represents the idea of humans working towards resembling God, who is the essence of creation and creativity.
These, then, are the first steps toward reducing self-censorship and unlocking our inner creativity: we must list, acknowledge, and set aside our inhibitors, and then list, celebrate, and access our boosters.
Enlarging Our Vision
But creativity doesn’t only emerge from how we position ourselves in relation to what inhibits or enables it. To truly unlock our imagination, we must train ourselves to see possibility even when it doesn’t exist. One known technique is in asking ourselves “what if” questions when considering the challenges we face.
For example, instead of asking ourselves “How might we get our students to love tefillah?” reformulating the question as a “what if” can empower us to tap into our imagination. Such a question—one that accesses our boosters—might look something like this: “What if I could take my students anywhere in the world, for an extended period, to help them appreciate and love tefillah? Where would we go? What would we do?” While realistically we will not be taking our students anywhere in the world we want, the question itself is an expansive one, allowing our imagination to flourish.
“What if” questions remove us from the constrictions of our daily realities. They ignite new possibilities and allow for new ideas to emerge. And when we couple them with imaginary boosters, pretending that we have unlimited access to resources, our creativity starts running free. And the irony is that often the creative ideas we’re likely to come up with will not require so many resources after all.
Education in Hebrew is חינוך, sharing a root with the word חנוכה, the holiday we are about to celebrate, representing the idea of inauguration (ח.נ.כ). Education is an act of inauguration, of bringing something new into this world: a new idea; a new perspective; a new voice. It is our task, as educators, to find possibility despite the many challenges that inhibit us. To see education through the prism of inauguration requires of us to tap into our creativity and imagination.
The most profound thing about imagination is that it is intertwined with our humanity, allowing us to experience our צלם אלוקים, to be in the image of God and access the possibility of creativity and creation.
And the best part of imagination is that it’s free. Following it invites us to trust ourselves and wander freely in the world of possibilities and exercise the gift of our humanity.