Imagination can be a wild thing. Left to its own devices, it can pull us away from reality, gallop into fantasy, linger over dreadful scenarios, and sink into old sorrows. The red shoes in Hans Christian Andersen’s story come to mind when I think of the wildness of the imagination. Those shoes can dance us to death or bring us back to life. It’s all a matter of what we do with them.
When I first started telling fairy tales, I gave my imagination a purpose. We had a place to go — journeys to take, roads to walk that took me to strange, magnificent, and miraculous places. I also saw horrifying things that would have been hard to see if they had not been held in the greater intelligence of the story.
As I learned to tell stories, my imagination grew more powerful, vivid, and informative. I also became more impressionable, more easily overtaken by specters of threat, anxieties over the future, sorrows of the past, the pain of others. Catastrophic news headlines (have you noticed the trend?) could more easily send me into whirls of outrage, and the daily churn of sad stories that people tell could beat me into deep depression.
In the last few years, I’ve become more and more aware that the stories I’m listening to, inside and out, may not be the ones I want to be listening to, and that I can (and must) choose how I want my imagination to be occupying itself.
Certainly, the fairy tale and WonderLit have helped me to align my imagination, and go seeking reflections of where I am and where I want to be directing my attention. Fairy tales can deliver us to a place where we can more clearly see what our choices are. Do I want to stay in a state of depression, like Cinderella by the fire, and listen to all those down-putting voices in my head that come from my inner stepmother? Or do I want to believe in myself, and move outward, speaking my own mind and heart? Do I want to stay in an impoverished state, diminished like Jack by a giant who lives above him in the sky, or do I want to grow up into my own giant-sized self and meet him eye-to-eye?
The fairy tale doesn’t give us the answers, though. It doesn’t tell us what it is like to live in the state where we land at the end of the story. It’s a real challenge to imagine what it is like to live beyond Cinderella’s self-diminishing narrative, or Jack’s giant fear of authority. Negative stories have the power of conviction. They’re like whirlwinds, hoovering every scrap of evidence from real life to support their cases.
After all, in real life, everybody dies, right? Life ends tragically. But does death have to be a tragedy? Not everyone sees death as a bad thing. Death is welcome for many people, and in many traditions, death is befriended.
In my view, we’ve heard enough stories about nasty, desperate people doing nasty, desperate things to innocent people. I’m interested in what happens during the process of integration and reconciliation. How do we come to peace?
The fairy tale gets a lot of flack for ending “happily ever after” but I think it’s giving us a big opportunity to imagine what the process of reconciliation looks like. What does Jack’s world look like after the giant has been taken down? What are the new challenges for people who were perhaps dependent on that big guy in the sky? How would they have to change in order to attain a lasting peace? What would our lives look like if we were to cultivate peace in an active way, and come to terms with our enemies inside – our tendencies to hatred, judgement, jealousy, lust, and revenge?
Of course, the minute you start proposing the real possibility of “happy ever afters” in real life, you run smack into the wall of a global meta-narrative that says any sort of lasting peace is unrealistic. War is necessary. As long as we are convinced by that story, we’ll continue to live in a war-torn state. However, as sociologist Arthur Frank said recently in a talk he gave at the Toronto Storytelling Festival, every narrative has its boundaries. The story that “war is necessary” prevents us from experiencing the possibilities that lie outside its borders.
If we want to imagine other possibilities, we need to put on our red shoes and walk out of the dominant story — go breathe the air on the other side. What might we find there? That’s for each of us to answer, but I would say we’ll find our own minds. Our own choices, and possibly, who knows? Better endings.
illustration by Katherine Cameron