Annalyn’s Corner: The Role of Imagination and Wonder

I recently watched The Secret World of Arrietty, and I was struck by the way its details not only captured my imagination, but planted an urge to create my own story. With great interest, I followed Arrietty through her family’s home—a pile of bricks on the outside, but a homey, uniquely decorated house on the inside—and later, with her father, into the main house for her first borrowing expedition. I noted the makeshift ladder inside the walls and wondered if they were made from heavy duty construction staples hammered into the posts. I listened with interest to nuggets of Borrower history from Arrietty’s parents and from the humans. But I wasn’t content merely enjoying the results of others’ imagination. I started thinking: “What if there were Borrowers in most humans’ houses?” and “The stories I’ve seen about tiny people involve them hiding. What would happen if they were discovered? Would they be respected as humans?”

Disney’s poster for the American release entices viewers, “Discover a secret world within our own.” That’s what I enjoy about so many Ghibli films: the idea that there is something more, something magical, just beneath the surface, and if we have the patience, the curiosity, the eyes to see it… we’ll catch at least a glimpse. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to participate in it, whether that means saving a young Borrower’s mother or playing with Totoro in the forest.

These ideas inspire me to pay more attention to the details in my world, to consider them from different perspectives—what would a Borrower see inside my piano? does water act differently in tiny amounts? why do its molecules cling so closely to each other at a certain size and then stop?—and it inspires a sense of awe at the details of God’s creation, and in the details of art and tools created by his creation.

These ideas also inspire me to create. I could say it’s because I’m a writer, and that certainly affects the direction of my reaction—I open the ColorNote app on my phone mid-movie to jot down a story idea. But all humans are creative, whether that shows in art, their dreams for themselves, their vision for a company, new mathematical proofs, or even their meal planning. It starts young, in games of make-believe, Legos, and dollhouse arrangements. But it never leaves completely, only takes different forms.

God expects us to not merely live in his lovely earth, but to engage with it creatively.

Humans naturally want to engage in creation: to enjoy, observe, and participate. God expects us to not merely live in his lovely earth, but to cultivate it. It didn’t take long before people learned to cultivate more than food and plants—musical instruments and cities soon took shape. We are, in many ways, co-creators with God. We can’t make something from nothing, but we can and do take what he’s given us and make new things with it.

Often, we don’t play only with physical properties, but with ideas. Fiction and non-fiction writers alike take philosophies and dreams and run with them, forming new ideas from the ideas of others. This is the kind of creating that makes me giddy. Sometimes, we make whole worlds. In these fantasy worlds, we explore “what ifs” and informally test philosophies about politics, life, and human interaction. 

There are many practical benefits to imagination—to appreciating and engaging the realm of ideas and beauty. Technological and social advances couldn’t be made without a certain element of “what if?” But they could, I think, be motivated by practicality without any sense of wonder. Yet humans—even the most practical among us—don’t operate that way.

Stories and visual media convey messages in ways that are easier to understand and accept. That’s practical, too. In fact, Beneath the Tangles was operates on the premise that anime gives us an enjoyable, friendly path to discussion about serious concepts. But why do we work that way? Why does God communicate to us this way and have us communicate to each other like this, instead of only through rhetoric of cause and effect? Wouldn’t that be more efficient?

One of our writers, Casey (Cutsceneaddict) recently talked about Summer Wars, parables, and emotions in an article over at Geekdom House. Like me, she is more of a thinker than a feeler, but she places importance on the “raw emotional response” parables and similar stories evoke, and how that response moves us to change. I agree… but I want to go one step further. I want to explore the possibility that the emotion and awe inspired by imaginative creation is itself an end.

As a thinker (mostly likely an INTJ), I’m often wary of my emotions. If I can’t ignore them, I analyze them until they go away, become useful, or at least stop compromising my judgment and ability to function. I only ride out an emotion when my body forces me to. I avoid movies that are intent on making me cry, because I don’t want to waste emotional energy (or, for that matter, become emotionally vulnerable) over a fictional character’s problems. And I avoid opening myself to joy, deep affection, emotional attachment, or excitement until I know I won’t be disappointed—this applies both to anime and to real life. I like to think I’m good with emotions, but in truth, I’m just really good at analyzing them so they don’t control me.

So why in the world would I suggest that emotions, including but not limited to awe, are more than tools and analytical exercises?

Because God made us this way. He gave us the type of imagination that taps into emotions and has no practical use outside of relationships. For whatever reason, he wants to relate to us in this messy, often imprecise way.

Arrietty and her father are on an expedition in the main house. I love following their adventure and imagining similar adventures happening within my own house's walls.
Arrietty and her father are on an expedition in the main house. I love following their adventure and imagining similar adventures happening within my own house’s walls.

I think God would encourage us to explore and mold ideas just for the sake of it, much like how we explore and cultivate the earth. Following a fantastical or mathematical concept wherever it may lead is just as valid as exploring a mountain path or city street. These are good things, given by God for us to explore and use—and they’re a chance for us to practice using our imagination and opening ourselves to awe.

Imagination and emotion are fundamental to how we approach God. He is the creator of the universe and of imagination, and if we try to understand him and his world with linear thinking alone, we won’t get far. God’s creation isn’t finished—he continues to create, mold, and hold the world together, and he allows us to participate in much of this. He created paradox and metaphor. He gave us imagination partly, I believe, because we couldn’t begin to grasp his creation without it. What is immediately in front of us is not enough to explain reality. And emotion—that vulnerable, often inconvenient, and sometimes exhilarating part of human experience—is what drives us to explore and respond to reality beyond the immediately visible world.

The day I can completely analyze God and all his Creation is the day I stop worshiping him. His creativity, his passion, his immense power, his transcendent understanding—my analytical powers only touch the edge of these, and eventually, all I can do is stand in awe. Usually, emotion leads me to logical analysis and action, but with God, honest analysis leads me to raw emotional response. And that’s what he asks from us: worship, praise, awe that goes beyond a critical five-star review.

So, back to anime: I think the reason movies like The Secret World of Arietty capture our imagination is that we are made for that kind of thing. We are made to look beyond the immediately obvious. We are made to feel inspiration and awe—and to pursue and praise what makes us feel these things.

Critical thinking has its place, and I encourage you to be intentional in your entertainment habits. But don’t forget to slow down, enjoy creativity—both by exploring others’ creativity and wielding it yourself—and praise the God behind it all.

2 thoughts on “Annalyn’s Corner: The Role of Imagination and Wonder

  1. Your article reminds me of something a Church Father once said: “Concepts breed idols; only wonder truly understands anything.” Fantasy remains a popular genre because do want a sense of awe and to be carried beyond themselves and ordinary life. And, I have to agree that Arietty does this very well–to a greater degree even than most other Studio Ghibli films.

    1. The first part of that quote, “Concepts breed idols” catches my attention, because I could spend a whole other post on how trying to approach theology in a purely intellectual/conceptual manner not only falls short, but can become problematic. It’s something I have to be reminded of from time to time.

      My only complaint about Arrietty is that it was a little fast-paced, so I didn’t feel like I had time to fully enjoy the borrowers’ world. Of all the Ghibli films, I think My Neighbor Totoro did this best—largely because the film follows two little girls and allows us to share their sense of wonder.

      Thanks for commenting, Medieval Otaku!

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