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Quotations I love: the consolation of imaginary things

Lynne Baab • Wednesday February 3 2021

Quotations I love: the consolation of imaginary things

“The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”
—Roger Scruton (English philosopher, 1944-2020, author of Art and Imagination, 1974).

My friend is telling me how much she loves West Wing. She tells me: “Often at bedtime, I get out one of my West Wing DVDs and watch an episode or two, just because I want to spend time with those people.”

A few weeks later, I am reading A Memoir of Jane Austen, written in 1870 by her nephew, J. E. Austen-Leigh. He writes about some of the favorite characters in the Jane Austen novels, “who have been admitted as familiar guests to the firesides of so many families, and are known there as individually and intimately as if they were living neighbours.”

The first time I met Jane Austen’s Emma, back in my thirties, I felt like I’d found a friend. Here is another woman who always believes she’s right and has tendencies to be controlling. Look, she learns and grows, so I can, too! Austen portrays Emma’s growth as painful but necessary, which was helpful to me as I entered midlife and faced the demon of my need to be right.

Characters is books, movies, TV series, and even comic books are imaginary, but the consolation they give us is not imaginary. As a young child, long before characters in books became friends, I had an imaginary friend, Dinah Shoe. My mother talked about admiring the singer Dinah Shore, and I think I got the name of my friend there. Dinah Shoe and I sat together at my little table eating snacks, and we played with dolls together. For about 18 months around age three, we lived in a neighborhood without other kids, and Dinah Shoe was a real comfort.

Equally imaginary, and equally comforting, are the places we go in our imagination. Many people I talk with have at least one imaginary place where they go in their minds to find peace and rest. Some of them meet with Jesus there. I have heard about meadows, beaches, mountains, cosy cottages and remote cabins. My older son is 41, and I have had insomnia since I was pregnant with him, so I have had ample time to develop imaginary worlds. I have several of them. One of them has a complex landscape, and I travel to the various places in the landscape using zip lines that can go uphill as well as downhill (hey, it’s an imaginary world). Jesus comes with me to the various places in the landscape and we talk about things.

One of my imaginary worlds is a circular home with windows all around. It floats above whatever landscape I want to visit. When we lived in New Zealand from 2007 to 2017, I often travelled to Mount Rainier, hovering above Crystal Mountain ski resort, looking at Mount Rainier while talking with Jesus, who was sitting beside me on a sofa. After we returned to Seattle in 2017, I often took my floating house to Doubtful Sound, one of the amazing fiords in New Zealand. The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.

When my kids were little, we had a book about the story of Jesus’ birth told from the point of view of a mouse in the stable. I loved that perspective on a familiar story. Imagining oneself as a character in a Gospel story is an ancient way of meeting Jesus, recommended by Ignatius of Loyola almost 500 years ago. I particularly love to imagine myself as the various women Jesus interacts with – or as a mouse listening and observing while Jesus talks to these women: the woman at the well (John 4), Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:1-44), the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), the women at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18), and many more. Entering into the stories this way enables us to smell the scene, feel the breeze on our face, and experience the emotions of the people involved. The stories come alive, and Jesus seems so real. (I wrote a previous blog post about how to do this.)

The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation. Where do you experience that reality?

(Next week: in prayer anything goes, a quotation from Eugene Peterson. Illustration by Dave Baab: Mount Rainier from Paradise. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to get an email when I post on this blog.)

Some previous posts on the imagination:

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