Scott Russell Sanders. Photo by Richardson Studio


When I visit elementary schools, I tell the children they possess two superpowers, and their eyes open wide. You’re exercising one of those powers now. Like schoolchildren poring over books, you’re turning ink marks on a page into words and meanings. Unlike youngsters, for whom learning to read is a recent achievement, adults might forget the astonishment we felt when suddenly those inky squiggles evoked pictures, stories, and ideas in our minds.

Reading enlists another astonishing ability, which arises in children well before they begin school. If you’ve spent time with a toddler, you may have witnessed the emergence of this other superpower. Suppose you’re playing with your young daughter, who has just begun to utter names of things. You balance a toy car on your head, point to it, and say, “See my hat?” She gives you a puzzled look, then insists, “Car! Car!” Some days later, you repeat the game. After a moment’s hesitation, she grins, crowing “Hat! Hat!” Within weeks you can draw pictures in the air—of an elephant, say, or a bowl of spaghetti—and she will play along, petting the elephant, slurping noodles.

You might think your child is the world’s brightest toddler, yet all children possess this amazing power. Visit any playground or preschool, and listen: you’ll hear in the piping voices the music of invention. Kids turn monkey bars into mountains, pebbles into jewels, clouds into castles, sticks into magic wands. Give them paper and pencils and they draw animals, buildings, landscapes, suns and moons and stars, shape after shape, as if fashioning the world anew. They roam the universe with ease. While NASA engineers labor for years to prepare a mission to Mars, children zoom to the red planet in cardboard boxes. They wear jackets for spacesuits, baseball caps for helmets, backpacks for air tanks. When they’re tired of searching for aliens on Mars, they might zip to another galaxy in search of dragons.

We call such childhood fancies make-believe. The term is condescending, as if such mental flights should be left behind along with outgrown clothes. But the power at work in make- believe is quite as necessary to NASA engineers as it is to kids. Except in grownups we call it imagination.

If it were not so common a talent, present in all of us to varying degrees, we would recognize imagination as a superpower rivaling anything dreamed up for comic book heroes. How amazing, that the mind can envision possibilities not present to our senses; that painters can see shapes and colors on a blank canvas, composers can hear notes amid silence, scientists can plan experiments never before tried. How amazing, that people suffering under tyranny can foresee liberation and survivors living among ruins can lay out a path to recovery.

We’re living among ruins now—of our economy, our democracy, our ravaged Earth. The path to recovery should not lead us back to the old status quo that has caused so much damage and misery, but forward to wiser ways of living,
and for that we need the guidance of imagination. Every improvement in the human condition—every tool, invention, work of art, medical discovery, social reform—begins as a glimmer of possibility in the mind. Like any human faculty, imagination can be corrupted by selfishness, fear, or greed. But when inspired by compassion, it can move us toward a life that’s worthy of our potential as reasoning, caring, moral creatures. Imagination can show us how to live together in peace, and in harmony with our marvelous planet.