Imagination is a valuable thing. It fuels innovation and creativity, and without it, we would not have writing or art. Imagination can allow us to conduct “thought experiments” of what might happen in a certain set of conditions, thus saving us time and money. Far better to sketch several floor plans and think about which would be best than to build a several houses and try them all out.
As children, we use our imaginations to engage in fantasy. A stick becomes a sword, our bicycle a warhorse, and the girl next door a damsel in distress. Imaginative play can have all sorts of benefits, but we need to remember that fundamentally, it is a child’s game. Living in a fantasy world as an adult causes problems. Adults engaged in cosplay are not merely wearing a costume to the neighborhood Halloween party. They are dedicated adherents who spend a significant amount of time pretending to be a comic book or movie character.
The temptation to escape is all around us and not limited to cosplayers. Video games have become another avenue of retreat from reality and many people don’t even require an engaging story. I have seen otherwise rational adults addicted to games with very thin stories, like delivering takeout to residents of a high rise.
Even books can take us away from reality. I am not saying that just because a book is a novel it is bad; any good story will draw us in and allow us to vicariously experience the characters, setting, and plot—even Scripture does this if we really engage with it. The problem occurs if we don’t come back when we shut the book.
This concept of unhealthy attachment to fantasy is one of the (many) reasons I’m so hard on television. All of us have real people and real events available to us, but we trade them for a laugh track and a world in which every problem is neatly solved in 22 minutes.
When we become intertwined in fantasy—reading ourselves into the story and expending significant time and energy in an unreal world—we subtly begin doing at least two things that are detrimental.
First, we use our limited resources for an illusion. We only have so much time, attention, and money to give. While all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, very few of us are in any real danger of this. There are myriad ways to recreate that are grounded in reality.
Second, we create idealized versions of ourselves that are disconnected from who we really are. We make idols of these imaginary selves and at best, they rob us of energy we should use to transform our real selves into the image of Christ. At worst, we indulge in creating a version of ourselves that is decidedly not Christlike. I have yet to see a video game that rewards Christian virtues—most encourage amassing wealth while destroying others.
Imagination has many positive uses, but drawing us away from ourselves so that we neglect ourselves should not be one of them. If you think this may be an issue for you, consider a “fantasy fast”—only engage in the real for 30 days. If it is difficult, it probably reveals an over-dependence on this other world you have created.