I have an overactive imagination. Not an hour of the day goes by when I don’t insert myself into a future that is not yet realized. Such a faculty may be useful for some aspects of creative work, but most of my fantasies are not directed on a specific outcome. Instead, I’m led astray by my imaginative faculty when I’m trying to undertake normal tasks like reading, writing, or listening, and it regularly distracts me when I should be serving God with zeal and vigor. I’m often in a fantasy land that creates an escape from my Christian duties.
What is imagination? Unlike a distinct memory, a relic of something that has already happened, an imagination (or fantasy) is something that has not yet been realized in material existence. You are using your mind to conjure a scene, situation, or outcome that—at the current moment—is fiction. Therefore, imagination is future-oriented, whereas a memory, whether enjoyable or not, is past-oriented. Your ability to recall memories is limited by the fixed limitation of memories, but with imagination, there is no limit to what you can invoke. Taken to the extreme, imagination may lead to a complete break from reality.
Orthodox Church Fathers state that imagination comes from the nous, which is the eye of the soul. The more damaged your soul, and the further you are from Lord Jesus Christ, the worse your fantasies will be, to the point where they cause you to sin and completely intrude on the ability to have a normal adult life.
…imagination is one of the faculties of the soul that plays an important role in the action and development of passions. It forms the image of a person or thing within us, then provokes sensual pleasure to capture our nous. Once taken captive we commit sin.
Since the Fall man’s imaginative faculty has run wild and is full of fantasies. Apart from man, the devil also has imagination. For precisely this reason fantasy and imagination are an efficient conductor of satanic energy and the devil uses them to ensnare people. Fantasy and imagination are a bridge between man and the demons, which the demons cross to trouble him.
When classifying imagination, I noticed two variables that determine the severity of one’s disconnection from reality. The first variable is the proximity of the fantasy. Does it take place in the next hour or does it take place in a faraway future? The second variable is the likelihood that the fantasy will happen. Are you imagining the conversation you will have with your friend as you are driving to his home or are you fantasizing about being a world-famous singer? If the imagined event is proximal and likely to happen, your fantasy can possibly be described as a rehearsal, but if it is distant and not likely to happen, your fantasy may be a dangerous form of delusion.
Here are five types of imagination that I have noticed myself doing…
1. Things right about to happen
A type of imagination that I’ve never heard labeled as dangerous is rehearsing for an event that will soon happen. Examples include same-day preparation for a speech, job interview, sporting performance, work meeting, or difficult conversation with a spouse. You mentally arrange the pieces of what is right about to happen to increase the likelihood of success. Such imagination may include logistical planning, dry runs, and scheduling.
To write this article, I had to imagine various ideas and test them in my mind before committing them to paper. My imagination was focused, deliberate, practical, and based on a reality that I wanted to perform. Most jobs require this mode of imagination.
One limitation of this type of imagination is when conversing with others. If you already prepare what you’re going to say to someone, or what advice you’re going to give, you may neglect to listen to new information or perceive the shifting needs of the listener and end up speaking at them instead of with them. It’s easy to turn spontaneous conversations into a lecture through excessive rehearsal and planning.
2. Things that are likely to happen soon
We now extend the timeline to things that are planned for the future but which may not happen. Last year, I was booked for a speaking event in Atlanta. I drafted a speech with the expectation I would deliver it, and imagined speaking before the crowd, but the event was cancelled by multiple venues. Another time, I planned to visit my friend in the mountains. I imagined some topics I was going to talk to him about, but my car broke down and I could not go. Another time, I imagined making vegan banana pancakes and the joy I would get from eating them, but my mom ate all the bananas and I could not make them.
In this category, we’re starting to see a failure in the realization of our imaginations, even though the failure is unexpected. After all, you did expect the event to occur, and wanted to be prepared for it. I wonder if the most useful aspect of our imaginative faculty is simply helping us prepare for common tasks so that we can give and receive the most spiritual value from them.
3. Things that are unlikely to happen anytime soon
The more spiritually sick a person is, the more he is dominated by all kinds of fantasy and imagination. The healthier he is spiritually, the freer he is from fantasies and imaginings. Even what are referred to nowadays as psychological problems are produced and retained in our souls by fantasies. The more we are freed from their oppression, the more we are healed from various psychological problems. This is why St John Cassian the Roman writes that a sign that someone has acquired the virtue of holiness and chastity is that his soul pays no attention at all to imagination or fantasy, even when asleep. —Ibid
With this category, we’re beginning to escape from reality, because we imagine things that—even if realized—won’t happen for a long time. There becomes a huge gap between the present time and when the fantasy can occur. For example, a man may meet a pretty woman and then later imagine her as his wife, or what it would be like to be intimate with her. A woman may get a haircut and imagine a handsome man who will sweep her off her feet because he finds her so ravishing. An unemployed computer programmer may imagine being a top executive at a prestigious firm. A single woman may imagine the names of her future children and how beautiful they will be.
Pleasure has begun to seep into the fantasy. The fantasizer disconnects from a boring reality and imagines a future that is pleasurable and more gratifying on the ego, just like how a drug addict ingests a drug to go somewhere else with his mind and body. He doesn’t like how his life is at the current moment so he imagines a better one in the future, which in turn causes him to neglect the present reality.
Prevalent are fantasies of the flesh. Unfortunately, I have spent untold hours with these types of fantasies in my secular days, which enabled my addiction to carnal living. The fantasies become the main fuel to engage in lawlessness. Fantasies can also exist on the complete opposite end of the spectrum where you imagine catastrophes, traumas, and other bad events that lead to anxiety, despondency, and despair, feelings that tear you away from the Lord.
4. Lofty fantasies that will never happen
Since the greatest and most terrible passion of all is pride, fantasy and imagination are closely linked with pride. Someone who is proud has something wrong with his imaginative faculty. It is inflamed. It conceives all kinds of images and fantasies and makes his soul an earthquake zone. —Ibid
The previous category had a shred of connection to reality, but now the fantasies become completely void of realism. For example, a man may imagine himself as president of a great empire while deliberating all the excellent laws he should pass, maybe even writing them down. Another man may imagine himself as a hero in a train accident, where his actions save dozens of lives. A woman may imagine herself as a saint who lived centuries ago. A timid man may imagine telling off a politician or policeman to a cheering crowd. A woman may imagine herself as inventing a cure for cancer and winning the Nobel Prize. These fantasies usually involve receiving adoration from a mob, absolute power, or a level of worldwide fame for nonexistent talents or virtues.
I admit that I have delved into this category more often than I like to admit. My insane pride has effortlessly led me to exalted fantasies where I was placed above all men to receive rapturous attention from the most beautiful women in the world. Someone can be especially prone to these fantasies if they are “bored” with their lives and want to add excitement or ego gratification without ever leaving their computer chair.
Ultimately, this category of imagination allows a person to believe that they are someone they’re not. Their entitlement grows and they begin to detach from reality. They fail to empathize with those who are “beneath” them in their fantasies, and in heightened states of delusion, they may actually believe their fantasies are truth. If you are experiencing this level of imagination, your soul has likely experienced heavy damage from secular life.
5. Vivid dreams, visions, and outright delusion
Dreams are fantasies, and they relate to the passions existing within us. From the images in these fantasies we can discern which passions we have.
It is noticeable that studying the writings of the holy Fathers crucifies the imagination, whereas reading impassioned writings, especially fiction, excites the imagination. The Fathers never concerned themselves with so-called Christian fiction, narrative tales and so on, because that sort of writing provokes fantasy. By contrast, even poetry written by the saints has an element of repentance and theoria of God. The poems of St Symeon the New Theologian contain a revelation of God. There is no trace in them of speculation or contamination with figments of the imagination.
If you’re regularly imagining yourself as a king or queen, chances are you have vivid dreams that further reinforce the belief that you are special, different, or better than others. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating: vivid dreams at night beget crazier fantasies during the day, begetting even more vivid dreams that you want to believe as truth or see as prophecies. More and more of your time is spent outside of reality to the point where you essentially have a second personality that none of your relatives or friends would recognize. You may be an office worker but, according to your imagination, you are an illustrious figure who is not “understood” by the common people you interact with. In such a stage of delusion, you buy your own hype and will almost certainly be humbled in a way that will cause despair, when how you see yourself is not confirmed but what life’s mirror displays.
The imaginative faculty can be so damaged that some people can experience disassociated hallucinogenic states and visions while awake without the use of drugs. In other words, they dream while awake. In extreme conditions, medical treatment may be required, which often requires doping the patient to turn down the biological activity of the brain.
Outside of sensible rehearsing for upcoming events, I don’t see any positive use of being taken hostage by my imaginative faculty at times when I should be focused on other tasks. The fact that random fantasies come to me when I’m attempting to serve God, such as while praying or attending a Liturgy, tells me that imagination is more of an intrusion upon my mind instead of an aid. If I want to write a short story, I will sit down and direct my imagination onto the story, but more commonly it seems that my imagination is directing me into strange places and ideas. Before, I would play with fantasies and use them to help me escape the meaningless of life, but since I have found meaning in Christ, I have little use for the games that my imagination wants to play. Unfortunately, I damaged my nous to such an extent from so many years of secular life that I must now battle with this problem daily to attend to my obligations before God.
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