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The Miracle of Imagination

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Making choices about life depends critically on the ability to imagine possibilities. Speaking as an advocate for liberal education, I believe that the central liberal art -- the art that frees us from the shackles of our pasts, our times, our places, our familiar opinions, our inherited prejudices, and the conventions of our day, the art that gives us the freedom to think about the world of possibilities -- is the Art of Imagination. We all possess imagination, just as we all possess intellect. But sometimes we suppress it, or we have had it beaten out of us, or we have dulled it by our daily routines. To see what our lives might become, we need to awaken the imagination and give it room to roam. We need to be able to wonder at the possibilities that are open to us. Both imagination and wonder can be nurtured by stories from our childhood, by fairy tales, by books, dramas, and musical performances -- in short, by exposure to the great and the beautiful in any form. Photographs, works of fine art, and movies provide powerful stimulants to the imagination, and seem to be able to show us wonderful things we might not encounter in our everyday lives.

Every year around the holiday season I am reminded of this when I watch the delightful 1947 George Seaton film Miracle on 34th Street. We all remember the drama of the trial of Santa Claus, in which a young lawyer, Mr. Gailey, fends off the state's attempt to commit to psychiatric care a man named Kris Kringle, who claims to be Santa Claus, by proving that there is a Santa Claus and that Kris is he. Now that is already a tall tale of the imagination.

But the arc of the story is broader and deeper. It is about the suppression and eventual recovery of the imagination in a woman and in her six-year-old daughter Susie, who has been raised by a mother whose dream of a happy life was shattered by a disastrous love affair. Mother has organized the Macy's parade with floats depicting giants, fantastical scenes, and a lovable old Santa played by Kris Kringle himself. Susie is invited by her neighbor, Mr. Gailey, to watch the parade from his window in the hope that Susie will later introduce him to her beautiful mother.

Gailey asks Susie about the giants and then about Santa. But Susie doesn't believe in either. She's never heard of Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, and knows that her mother hired Santa off the street. She doesn't know any fairy tales: "My mother thinks they're silly." No myths. No legends. Mother stands for reality. Christmas is about commerce. Santa is for selling toys. Mother wants to protect Susie from the harmful effects of believing in fantasies.

While rooming with Gailey, Kris Kringle works as Macy's Santa in an attempt to win Mother over to his side, to help her see the world as it could be rather than as it is. He starts with Susie, who has never learned how to play make-believe or relate to imaginative children of her own age. Kringle says to her:

"Of course, in order to play, you've got to have an imagination. Do you know what the imagination is? . . . The imagination is a place all by itself, a separate country. You've heard of the British nation and the French nation. Now this is the Imagination. It's a wonderful place. How would you like to be able to make snowballs in the summertime? Or drive a great big bus right down Fifth Avenue? How would you like to have a ship all to yourself that makes daily trips to China and Australia? How would you like to make a Statue of Liberty in the morning and in the afternoon fly south with a flock of geese? It's really simple. Of course, it takes practice." And he starts right away, having Susie practice at pretending she is a monkey.

Well, Kringle is eventually hauled off to the psychiatric ward, and Gailey defends him from commitment. Mother, seeing how this lovely old man is suffering and how her newfound love, Mr. Gailey, has been ostracized by his law firm, recovers her belief in the possibilities and small miracles of life, and declares her belief in Kris Kringle. She confesses to her daughter that she was wrong when she told her there was no Santa: "You must believe in Kris. You must have faith. Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. You've got to believe in people." Susie eventually follows, in Hollywood fashion.

Mother's compassion and fellow-feeling for Kris Kringle allowed her to recover her humanity along with her hopes and dreams for a new future -- one that will include both Susie and Gailey. We know this new family will live happily ever after because they have developed the capacity for imagining their happy future, and have resolved to make it a reality. Susie gets her fondest wish: the home of her dreams with a swing in the back yard and a complete family to occupy it.

Compassion, fellow-feeling, and a formidable imagination make a potent potion for creativity. Northrop Frye, in his brilliant little book The Educated Imagination, says that "the fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life . . . is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in." What more proper use could liberal education serve than to train the imagination to continually create better visions of the world we want to live in?

At this celebratory time of year, when sparks of magic dance on the cold night air, let us wonder about the worlds we want to live in, and give thanks for the miracle of imagination.