Yesterday, in the city, I encountered a couple of individuals who were ‘out of their minds’. One was a middle-aged woman who had shorn off all her hair and had harnessed across her belly a plastic, life-like doll that she coddled as if her very own living child. She cooed and clucked and stroked its bald head with maternal love, meandering through the city streets quite in love with her doll. She also carried with her a heavy load of sadness, loneliness and loss, her pampering of the doll speaking of a lost child or childhood.
The other was a man, fired up on fury, intermittently spitting at people as he called them every possible offensive term known in the English language. His world was populated with strangers with whom his personal axe had much to grind. Surprised pedestrians were affronted by this human spitting cobra and immediately went into the ‘pretend he’s not there’ coping mechanism, his venomous words falling ignored on the ground along with the miniature pools of spit. Everyone around him was clearly an incarnation of something vile, monstrously lurking in his brain and being.
As a second born child, the likelihood of having an imaginary friend, science tell me, was significantly minimised. I suppose I had a ready-made, and corporeal companion in the form of a sibling. Those that know such things have proven that the emergence of imaginary friends for children was first recorded in the late 1800’s and it is a phenomenon typically experienced by the first-born child. No one quite knows for certain why some children create imaginary friends, nor why some adults are prone to manifesting voices and beings.
The psychological phenomenon of imaginary friendships is different to the manifestations of schizophrenia and hallucinations which are experienced as real. It is believed that children actually know their pretend playmates are imaginary and are evoked to allow experimentation and safe ways to engage with others and construct a knowledge of how to be in the world. It’s a technique we have mastered whether we had imaginary friends or none.
My first-born niece opted for two imaginary friends to whom she would chatter and transfer needs that she herself could not own. As her family, we were quite at ease accommodating the requests of her and her imaginary friends. We played along, setting places for them at the table, apologising for interrupting them and agreeing whole-heartedly with their views on the world. I also had a childhood friend whose imaginary buddy, Stuart, wasn’t particularly fond of me and lo and behold the friendship ended, because Stuart couldn’t get along with me!
One of my all-time-favourite films is Lars and The Real Girl. It poignantly captures how the grieving protagonist, Lars, manifests an outer reality to cope with his inner pain. Everyone’s love of Lars forces them to treat Lars’ ‘imaginary girlfriend’ as a real person and gradually they coax Lars away from his pain into a new reality of how to be man. Like all of us, Lars needed a bit of help becoming himself and imagination and love helped him through that transition.
My superstitiously cautious mother had ‘a thing’ for St. Christopher. It was clearly some sort of inheritance from a fear of travelling alone: something she was forced to do often as a very young girl. Peace of mind was restored to her when her children were adorned with an effigy of the saint and no car could leave her dwelling without an embossed image of the patron saint of travellers. She genuinely believed the force emanating from this figure protected her and those she loved from the spectre of death which had, to date, claimed everything else she had ever loved. Christopher was her imaginary friend who helped her look after everyone.
That beautiful tormenter, hindsight, often causes me to think of all the brilliant things I could have and should have said after an event. For my whole life, it seems, I am prone to re-enact the conversations that never happened. In my imagination I vividly materialise the interplay of adeptly crafted responses that were absent at the real encounter. The dialogue at times becomes so emotive I am forced out of my mind and into soliloquy where I tell myself the lessons I am learning, or caution myself against madness. I have created for myself an imaginary stage where I can ‘play out’ the possibilities of how I could be in the world – next time.
Think about the artist’s ability to make us suspend disbelief. There is something powerful going on when you experience a story, told through word or film, that transports you into a fictional world. Your brain temporarily cannot distinguish what is real and you laugh out loud or weep deeply for the wit or misfortune of someone you have never met and can only ever meet in dream or fantasy. It’s a beautiful power we possess to transport ourselves elsewhere and we use this for learning lessons about how life could work.
When we lose the ones we love and know their special presence and familiar words are forever absent we can ache for that love with gut wrenching reality. Our sadness can cause us to conjure them back to life in our minds, recalling memories, sharing new experiences and reminding ourselves of how reality was made somewhat better for knowing them. We imagine them back into our lives and get them to help us out. We share conversations, give updates. We know they are dead but we keep them with us – an imaginary friend who is there for moral support.
If Plato was right and this world is all a projection on the wall of a cave, then what matter is it if a saint supports us to safety, a loving memory buoys through heartache, a make believe companion or conversation allows us to practice how to be our best selves. I would far rather live in a world where imaginary friends surround and support us than imaginary terrorists tormenting us. If you are going to make the effort to imagine energies around you it’s probably a good idea to create benevolent forces guiding your forward into all the wonderful possibilities available.