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Scripture tells us to “cast down vain imaginations,” so let’s get to it.
“Vain” isn’t just about vanity, though spending lots of time imagining your own beauty surely calls for some “casting down.” “Vain” is also “to no avail,” or “purposeless,” and those imaginations are, I think, the ones most important to dispense with.
Cast Out the Clutter
Your imagination is a tremendously important asset, whose order and spaciousness and ‘tone’ contribute to your effectiveness. Cluttered with vain imaginations, that zone of formation is compromised considerably. Just as you de-clutter by asking each item what it’s there for, how useful or important it is, where it actually belongs, and how it justifies the space it takes up, inquire of your imaginations as to their purpose.
Discard imaginary virtue and heroics. They too easily distract from the development of real capacity to act virtuously. Needing lots of imaginary heroic action points to a sense of life-impotence, or perhaps fears that need to be faced. Discover what the payoff is for you. Meet the need through prayer and Sacrament and growing up, and discard the useless daydreams of Giving Selflessly and Saving the Day.
Discard imaginary projection into the distant future. It’s helpful to be able to extend a bit into the real and near future imaginally. How else would we plan Thanksgiving dinner, get the remodeling done, arrange the logistics of a vacation, or practice the words we’ll say in freedom next time we face the same challenge? What is not helpful is to go farther and farther out into the possible results of today’s actions, the possible assaults to tomorrow’s freedom, the (vain) attempt to control factors of future reality that do not yet exist.
I know for a fact that imagining the time after I’ve forgiven someone a) delays my forgiveness and (when I go too far and picture a glowing new relationship with lots more self-giving and vulnerability) b)presents post-forgiveness hurdles I simply am not prepared to jump in this moment. Whoa, girl! Get back to the reality you face now, and simply respond to it. Do not move ahead imaginatively into “ungracious time” (my poetic way of saying there is no grace in imaginations, so the whole exercise is vain anyway as it discounts the most enormous factor of reality).
Discard scenarios and strategies. Granted the need to think about the problems you face and the ones you expect to face in the near, real future. Your imaginations become vain when they become attempts to generate a playbook for every possible move someone else makes. Those others? They have become characters in your drama and you are responding to their virtual reality, not the whole, mysterious, radiant, image-of-God-bearing reality of their real presence. You? If you find yourself on the imagined stage of your own dramas, get out now! This is a dangerous place to be! The more you rely on media (books, TV, movies, music) to ‘carry’ your Self into imagined action, the easier prey you are to vain imaginations, and vice versa.
Imagined Scary Scenes
Discard imagined fear, and fearful scenarios. The need to dwell on fearful scenes is some self-defense against real and fearsome possibilities. The problem is that, as you generate the imagination, you also trigger your body’s response and flood yourself with hormonal ‘fear practice’! Instead of getting ready to meet something scary, you are compromising your capacity to meet what actually does come up in reality! Maybe, too, your rehearsals become self-fulfilling prophecies your imagination speaks into being first within you and then in your real experience. Of course I am not saying that bad things happen because people imagined they would, but it is absolutely the case that what people spend time imagining is more likely to become realized than what they haven’t thought up yet.
Discard replays as quickly as possible. It’s important to evaluate the results of your action. How can you learn from success or failure without a mental ‘debrief’ in which you go back over what worked, what didn’t , where the pivotal choice points occurred and why, etc…? Once those imaginations have served real purpose by giving you insight into your own behavior patterns, relationship dynamics, better ‘best practices,’ specific weaknesses that need to be addressed, and the like, let them go. They only serve to titillate your emotions, lock you into the past, cause new fears, or occupy you in imagined virtue and self-defensive strategy.
It’s Up to You!
Ultimately, you’ve got to do your own de-cluttering. One man’s Rube Goldberg machine is another’s cutting edge invention; one’s drama is an escape from life while another’s is an award-winning new novel. Just as there is no objective basis for saying whether to hold on to Great Grandpa’s Boy Scout badges, there is none for deciding about the clutter in your mental attic. But do attend to it, before that space has no room left in it for all the non-vain imaginings of which you are capable!