I remember the moment when my imagination changed, or at least the moment I recognized the change. I was ten years old, bored in my childhood room, so I picked up a lego spaceship to play a game I’d played a thousand times before. I’d constructed many, many spaceships from my mountain of legos, but most lasted mere hours or days before being unceremoniously dismantled to create spare parts for new creations. This particular ship survived for months, a near-eternity for a child. She was compact, maneuverable, and quick, and her shape struck a chord in my imagination, earning her a spot on my shelf alongside prized action figures and model cars.
I lifted the ship off my shelf, and I started to fly her through the air. But this time felt different. I went through the motions of swinging the toy around my room while making shooting sounds, yet the magic had evaporated. She was no longer a spaceship—just a collection of legos. Puzzled, I set the ship down.
Maybe I’m growing up, I remember thinking. I’d heard that kids outgrew childish pursuits, so perhaps this was part of my mental growth spurt. It wasn’t until many years later, when I thought back to this inevitable transition, that I started to understand what it meant.
As an only child, I lived in my imagination. While I played, my toys became real. I particularly enjoyed drawing elaborate cross-sections of cruise ships, then imagining what would happen if they sprung a leak. I could spend hours lost within a single train of thought, an alternate reality that I created. And then, all of a sudden, I could no longer transition between reality and imagination so easily.
It felt like a loss, almost as if I’d undergone a lobotomy to remove an essential brain function. And yet, now I wonder...
My play fantasies were compelling to me, but since they existed solely within my head, sharing them wasn’t possible. To anyone else, a lego spaceship I built was an ordinary object. Viewing it couldn’t reveal any of the many adventures I’d imagined. Similarly, a drawing of a sinking boat didn’t tell the story I’d imagined of an engineer who’d bravely sacrificed himself to seal a hatch and save the lives of thousands of passengers.
Even if I could share these adventures at the time, either verbally or through writing, I’m pretty sure any adult would be bored to tears. My childhood fantasies were disorganized, lacking any coherent plot or characters that others could find compelling.
I now choose to view my loss more like a trade, albeit an involuntary one. I traded my ability to set reality aside for a different ability: the skill to create more complex/compelling fantasies and then share them with others who might enjoy spending some time in my imagination.