I’m not sure how old I was – seven or eight, maybe – when my Grandmother caught my cousin and I prying the wood paneling off the wall in one of her house’s bedrooms using the plastic ketchup and mustard bottles from a grocery store playset we had. I can count on one hand the number of times I remember her actually becoming visibly angry with any of her grandkids, and that was one of them.
But we hadn’t intended to be destructive. We were searching for a secret passage. The house was pretty old – my Mom had grown up in it – and so, according to the logic of kids’ fantasy and detective media, it had secret passages and we were going to find them, little ears to the walls, palming and knocking softly like I must have seen someone do in a movie. My cousin was too young to do much other than completely believe my logic, that the slightly loose piece of paneling we discovered in that particular bedroom had to conceal a door.
I’m not entirely sure what I hoped it’d be a door to. Crawlspaces to enable professional espionage against our family? Dark, quiet passages to underworld chasms, mysterious cities, foreign tombs laden with treasure or haunted by royal ghosts? Long-concealed empire drawing rooms somehow forgotten as part of the infrastructure of the house? It didn’t really matter, as any of these outcomes were implied in ‘secret passage.’ We’d figure it out when we found it.
I was always doing things like that. Crawling, fingers outstretched, eyes shut, for the backs of closets, feeling deterred – but never defeated – should my fingertips brush cool plaster and not the foreign foliage of another realm. Searching inside of flowers for miniature cities, listening to trees in case one of them was a prince from another world, transformed by a curse. Whispering at the moon in the hopes of stumbling upon an incantation – all of it, a continuous (often inspiring, often lonesome) search for ways to go elsewhere.
Entertainment media aimed at children has always promised that escape. Fairy tales illuminate a world that exists beyond what the eye can see, a realm of magic available to one special person with the right sort of heart. Unicorns, the legends go, only appear for the pure. The hero chosen to save the kingdom is always one unlikely, often luck and love-starved child. Even modern blockbuster movies about kids getting lost in the big city, of babysitting nights gone awry, about young detectives, have helped contribute to an entire culture aimed at teaching kids to dream of something better than ‘all there is,’ of powers undiscovered, a way out of the mundane.
Imagination is generally the realm of children. Young people have not yet learned the world is boring and hard, and so learning to create those psychic buffer zones, how to be their own companion, how to seek escape, is a skill foundation that must be laid early.
Even the grown-ups who, as the stereotype goes, tell kids to get their heads out of the clouds, to stop talking to people that aren’t there, are, intentionally or otherwise, strengthening the dreamer’s urge that will help them be great creators and great innovators as adults, in the face of a society that loves to quash the tall poppy with prescribed social norms, to fling up bureaucratic roadblocks, to declare: ‘Impossible.’
A resilient spine of imagination is what drives human beings to strive for impossible things – like dream of space travel, of cures for incurable disease, of world peace. Technology, interaction and even the development of architecture and vehicle design marches onward in no small part because imaginative kids grow up into ambitious adults who really, really want to actualize the shiny adventures of the science fiction books they love – flying cars, sentient robots, space needles and all.
Because ‘wanting out’ is a quintessential part of the adult life. All people need to believe there is a way to escape normalcy and the status quo. If we all believed there was nothing to do but accept reality, life would be intolerable. We could not progress.
Most important about the things we dreamed as children is that there was never any real danger. A secret passage walled into an old house is far more likely to contain a corpse than a luminous parallel universe, but I never thought about that. Even if as a kid you did manage to build a functioning time machine so that you could visit the age of the dinosaurs, you never stopped to think that you might become the meal of some vicious primordial monster.
We sought portals to new lands without worrying that we might end up their permanent prisoner. Any potential threat – black knights, malfunctioning robots, dragons and ghosts – only served to promise us the chance to be heroic. Dreamer-children learned to consider possibilities with endless wellsprings of excitement and ambition, not fear.
The worst in humanity arises from the chasm between the real world and our dreams. We are liable to become inert, we become avoidant, we become addicts, or we self-sabotage because of the cruelty of the real, and the crushing lesson that there is only a certain extent to which we will ever subvert it.
But survival and great success are born from the refusal to accept boundaries, though it may be strange to conceive of our greatest creative endeavors as direct responses to the fact that life sucks. Or to think that the most impressive thing any individual will ever accomplish is born out of the friction between what we want to be and what we are. That’s what we were learning when playing imagination games as children – how to want a way out, always, from the world we were given.
And the worse that world was, the more we wanted that escape. That’s why the greatest strides in this world are often made by the people who’ve suffered most – and why you never meet anyone interesting who says they had a great time in high school.