Use your imagination.
I can’t tell you how many times my parents said this to me throughout my childhood. It’s a statement I’m sure most of you heard as children as well, probably in response to you whining about how THERE IS NOTHING TO DO!
Being told to entertain myself with my own imagination used to piss me off. As a kid, I expected my parents to instantly resolve my boredom by spawning new toys and popsicles out of thin air. They never did. Instead, they told me to imagine I was in outer space or to build something using my imagination. No, that’s stupid, I used to think, and I would drive back outside to sulk at the unfairness of life… at least until my imagination took over.
In retrospect, I was an extremely imaginative little kid. I had to be. How else could a kid in a wheelchair rob banks, and shoot Indians (also in retrospect, how terrible is it that my little-kid mind naturally viewed Indians as the enemy?), and hit home runs, and throw touchdown passes? Sure, I found ways to involve myself in whatever my friends and I were doing, but none of those games would’ve been any fun if I didn’t employ an active imagination while playing them. And yet, when my parents suggested I use my imagination during times of boredom, I thought they were being the stupidest, lamest, most unfun parents on earth. Weird.
Today, I value my imagination. Not only do I acknowledge that it played a large role in my childhood, but I continue to use my imagination, even at 20 years old. Maybe I’m wrong, please tell me if I am, but I think a lot of people lose touch with their imaginations as they get older. Maybe this is the case for you. If so, here are some observations—mostly benefits—that I’ve made about my own imagination over the years.
Maybe you still have an active imagination. If so, perhaps this post will have some ideas that you can relate to.
Maybe you couldn’t care less and don’t feel like reading a long story. If so, don’t read it. Just use your imagination!
Imagination allows me to experience an escape from reality. Don’t get the wrong idea; I’m not trying to say that reality is so routinely unbearable that I constantly flee to my inner thoughts to find relief. My life just isn’t that sad. But there are occasional moments when stressors such as daily life, my responsibilities, my future, my health, and my relationships converge on my mind all at once, a clusterfuck of stressors, and in these moments it’s a lot more fun to simply think about something else. In a way, my imagination is occasionally a coping method.
In my senior year of high school I experienced one of these moments. It was the middle of winter, and I was sitting in English class pretending to pay attention. My eyes blindly scanned the lines of a Shakespeare poem we were the analyzing, while inside my mind, the floodgates of Hell were about to burst. The wheezy breaths I forced in and out hinted that there was phlegm in my lungs, that I might have pneumonia. My blazing fever confirmed it.
What am I going to do? Not only could this be the sickness-to-end-them-all, but at the very least, I knew I was about to miss a bunch of school, and finals were approaching. Staying home from school also means one of my parents has to stay home and take care of me, a burden I hate to place on them. (Mom & Dad: I know you guys don’t see it as a burden. You don’t need to talk to me about it after you read this story, lol. This was my mindset in 12th grade.)
As these chilling thoughts started to take control of my mind, I realized I would not make it through the rest of the day if I continued to obsess over my present situation (I would have, but it would’ve sucked). Shakespeare was not about to divert my attention (sorry Shakespeare fans), so instead I found solace in my imagination.
I imagined things like how nuts it would be if someone in the class spontaneously combusted. I imagined what the teacher’s reaction would be if I read from right to left next time she asked me to read an excerpt, or what her reaction would be if I just refused. I imagined that the cafeteria would be serving its orgasmic burritos, even though it was a Thursday, which I knew meant they’d be serving the rubbery fucking chicken patties that made every other person have diarrhea. As I imagined these things, my nerves started to calm, the sweat on my palms began to subside. The human mind is beautiful; by simply imagining things that I found funny and enjoyable, I patched those floodgates and delayed serious panic a little while longer. Crazy.
Imagination allows me to experience—or at least come close to experiencing—physical activities that are impossible for me because of my disease. When the neighborhood kids and I played football in the church parking lot behind my old house, I played full-time defense. Thinking back on this experience provides interesting insight into my young imagination.
On defense, I primarily played defensive back. For eight-year-old Shane, whose knowledge of football came mostly from playing NFL Blitz on Nintendo, I knew that my objective as a defensive back was to stop the wide receivers from catching deep passes. I relished my responsibilities at this position because I knew I was the last line of defense between my opponent and a touchdown. In REALITY, I did little more than drive around trying to put my wheelchair in the path of the wide receivers. In REALITY, young athletic children had no problem avoiding my hulking mass of a wheelchair. In REALITY, I might have been actually responsible for one or two dropped passes at most per game, but that’s all I needed, because I had my imagination. In my imagination, I was an intimidating force to be reckoned with out on the field. In my imagination, the offense stayed away from me because they knew there was no chance of getting past me. In my imagination, every dropped pass was because the wide receiver was fearful of me smashing into them with 300 lbs of metal at full speed.
Sure, I was delusional about my true impact on our games of football. But at the same time, I wasn’t so delusional that I ever wanted to play offense. Of the few times I ever lined up on the offensive side of the ball, I played running back, where the quarterback handed me the ball and my goal was to drive to the end zone without getting “tackled” by the defense. When my brother was on the opposing team, hand-offs to me always resulted in significant failure, because Andrew couldn’t give a fuck about pretending I was faster than him. On the other hand, if Andrew wasn’t playing, the other neighborhood kids used to LET me make it to the end zone every time I touched the ball, pretending that I was just too fast. Not even in my young imagination could I pretend that this wasn’t the most humiliating feeling on earth. Therefore, I mostly played defense.
Imagination leads to creativity. Laughing At My Nightmare, Inc. would not exist without the combined power of Sarah and I’s imaginations. I will never forget the day that she and I first had the idea to sell wristbands for my blog. We were eating together at Moravian, discussing the surreality of my blog becoming popular, when one of us challenged the other to imagine how insane it would be if we used my growing popularity to make a positive impact on the world. Over the next few months, our imaginations really took hold of our lives. Imagine if the idea of Laughing At My Nightmare became a nationally recognized message. Imagine if it went global. Imagine if we sold stuff to further promote the message. Imagine if we sold wristbands. Imagine if we turned this into a business. Imagine if we did more than sell wristbands. Imagine if we made movies and did speaking tours. Imagine if we started a nonprofit organization. Imagine if we needed to hire a lawyer. Imagine if our nonprofit became famous. Imagine if it became our lives.
And before we knew it, our imaginative creativity was becoming reality.
My imagination is also an infinite source for humor. A large percentage of the things my friends and I laugh about involve imagining ridiculous, hypothetical scenarios. Imagine if I tried to drive my chair down the escalator at the mall. Clearly, I would die. My chair would immediately roll forward and my neck would break before I was even halfway down. That part isn’t funny to me (I lie, it is), but can you imagine the utter disbelief of a random onlooker, watching a kid in the wheelchair confidently hurl himself down an escalator? That’s what makes me laugh.
Now that I think about it, most of the scenarios we imagine involve putting me in physically or socially awkward situations. The other day Andrew came to me with an idea for a funny video: “We are going to tie a leash around your wheelchair and then go to Wawa. Someone can film us from far away as I walk you to the front of the store and tie the leash to one of the bike racks. Then you will just sit there while I go inside and buy food.” Brilliant. A video will be coming soon.
We imagine public places where Andrew could get me out of my chair and lay me down (i.e. the counter at McDonald’s, the middle of an aisle at Walmart).
We also imagine ways for me to react to people trying to shake my hand, such as hissing at them or pretending they squeezed my hand too hard and broke it.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, using my imagination minimizes the scariness of my future. Living with the knowledge that my body is on a gradual downward slope makes the future a daunting enigma of uncertainty. Uncertainty is scary. I’ve said it before, but I don’t like my chances of finding a girlfriend, getting married, and having kids. In addition to that, every winter brings with it a new set of illnesses that threaten my life, and they only become more threatening with every year that passes. It should not surprise you that I don’t enjoy thinking about my future in terms of reality.
With all that being said, I’m able to remain optimistic by thinking about my future within the confines of imagination. Sometimes I imagine a doctor calling to inform us that they’ve found a “miracle” cure, and how beautifully perfect that moment would be. I also enjoy imagining myself 20 years from now, still living with SMA, but with a wife and kids and a career that I love. I imagine traveling the world, and meeting people, and sharing my story, and leaving an impact.
I need you guys to understand something, though. My imagination is powerful, but my determination to turn these imaginations into reality is even stronger.