"Despair, when not the response to absolute physical or moral defeat, is, like war, the failure of the imagination." -Adrienne Rich
"The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work." -Emile Zola
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first geosynchronous satellite, Sputnik, into space. In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. In response to the USSR's success, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the United States that we would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The date was September 12, 1962. This represented one of modernity's most extreme cases of not only optimism but passion as well. Passion on a grand scale. What JFK was asking was in the realm of the impossible, yet with enough minds, it became a reality.
When NASA was assembling its team for the lunar missions, they preferred hiring brilliant 20 and 30-year-olds instead of more experienced senior scientists. The logic was that the younger generation would have fewer ingrained beliefs about what was and wasn't possible. We can see this same phenomenon in children whose imaginations are left to run wild. They are able to create worlds, relationships, languages, and other fantasies that adults have difficulty grasping. As their minds mature, however, they become more structured. Children lose touch with the same level of unbounded creativity. If they are lucky and gifted, they can retain their creativity into adulthood, but even then there is a limit.
Most creative geniuses (Einstein, Curie, Newton, Mozart, Davinci, etc.) peak somewhere in their mid-20s to early 30s. The reason for this is complex. It is partly due to this decade being a prime time for identity formation in terms of career accomplishment, partly due to a willingness to take more risks, and partly due to the deficit of external limits on creativity. Yes, genius does occur later in life, but its foundation is usually cultivated and present at some earlier point. This pattern points to two key imperatives if we want to foster a higher I.Q. (Imagination Quotient) in our society.
The first imperative is the importance of allowing freedom of expression for children and young adults. The school system has seen a steady decline in this creative freedom as arts, music, and dance programs are rapidly replaced with those designed to improve standardized test scores and college placement. We have very much become a culture obsessed with measurement, technology, and scientific reasoning. Ironically, the nation's standardized test scores are declining rather than improving as we deprive our children of creative outlets.
Imagination is the lifeblood of all intellectual pursuits. Good science - good anything - requires an unquantifiable portion of creativity and passion at its root. Passion describes an unquenchable urge to do something. In a general sense, it is the breath of fire blown into us at our conception. Specifically, it is a singular focus, like a wolf chasing down an elk. Animalistic in a sense. If it is bottled up, passion will fight with the container. This is why we need to learn to direct it and not squelch it. Guide it and not force it.
Having unstructured time where kids and adults alike can transmute the raw materials in their world and in their minds into creations is essential to living a complete life. Try to think of the last time you spent a whole day dedicated to imaginative endeavors. Not too many generations ago, people would frequently take weeks, months, or even years at a time away from their usual grinds to refill their creative cups. Today, we are wary of such luxuriant "leisure time," yet we waste countless days every year plugged uselessly into the matrix (as it were). When I write I like to take an entire morning away from my phone and the internet to let my mind wander. Thank God it has always returned with something meaningful.
The second imperative is that we understand that not all passions are created equal. The truth is that there is always something meaningful motivating us at any given moment. If you are alive it is because passion is animating you somehow. Hopefully, that drive is life-giving, but for some people, it's not. Trauma, abuse, addiction - they all create cycles of destruction if not addressed properly. At their worst, these ripples create hatred, manipulation, or chaos. At their best, they create distrust, self-absorption, or apathy. Either way, the creative power is turned towards sin instead of service. Evil instead of good.
Let us all take a step back and remember that everything we have accomplished from our first steps to our first job, to our careers or our families - anything that elicits pride - was an impossibility to us in the beginning. Arriving at where we are today required countless forays into "outer space." Yes, many of us had examples to copy - people who have been there before - but these must all be filtered through our own experiences and how we have individually chosen to live our lives. Even the literal word of the only perfect human who ever lived (Jesus Christ) must be enacted for it to be real. Thus, we are called on an individual basis to direct our attention and passion wisely. The same free will to choose a better life can also be used poorly.
Take stock of your passion. Is it creating a brighter future? Are you unleashing your gifts and talents in a way that helps you sleep soundly at night? We all have our moments of doubt. If you are feeling a bit listless try to surround yourself with kind and passionate people or read passion-filled books, remembering all the while that this capacity also lies within you. Nourish your creativity with quiet downtime, reflection, nature bathing, theater, or music. Avoid anyone who is trying to sell you something or manipulate you into action. Most of all, remember that nothing is impossible. Miracles happen if you are ready to receive them.