You Might Win--Imagine That
by Jennifer Paros
Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.
My son and I have been watching Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War. In it we’ve learned of General George McClellan – a major general, and for less than a year and a half, general-in-chief of the Union Army. At first, McClellan was a great asset with fabulous skills at organizing and training troops; but when it came time to fight, it was a different story. He consistently overestimated the strength and numbers of the enemy troops and remained indecisive, often refusing to enter into battle. He was cautious, apparently, to a fault. As sideline observers, my son and I found ourselves yelling at McClellan (150 years too late) to do something - my son calling him an expletive filled array of names, me questioning why Lincoln didn’t just fire him. Eventually Lincoln did remove McClellan - bad and excellent leader that he was.
Like my son and me, Lincoln was aggravated with what seemed to be chronic indecisiveness. Of course, it’s easy for two documentary enthusiasts to balk at a general’s reticence; we don’t know what it is to lead thousands of soldiers. But perhaps we, like Lincoln, were so strongly aggrieved because we could see what McClellan could not – that he could win.
More often than not McClellan had the troops he needed yet believed he needed more. His use of imagination was distorting - duped by what he believed was true, hypnotized by what he feared might be. His imagination, which could have been his greatest strength, became his greatest impediment. For General McClellan his was a psyche-out that affected thousands of soldiers and civilians; for the rest of us, this kind of thing happens in smaller, less dramatic ways, in which the stakes aren’t as high, but important just the same.
When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.
~ Honore de Balzac
I was about ten when our gym teacher at school entreated my friends and me to participate in the upcoming gymnastics meet. I had never competed in anything, and was disinclined, in general, towards sports, but some how agreed. I chose what I thought would be the easiest, least terrifying option: the basic, beginner floor routine. It did not require much ability but did require remembering what to do and in what order, which I did, but then forgot once it was my turn to compete. I left the mat in tears. Though unhappy, the experience also seemed familiar. At the time it was fairly habitual for me to anticipate possible losses, discomfort, and only a modicum of achievement – not much winning. It never occurred to me that if used differently my imagination could help me.
Sixty Minutes did a piece on twelve-year-old piano and violin prodigy and composer, Alma Deutscher. Fluid with her creativity and imagination, she allows new melodies and ideas to flow to her and through her regularly every day. Part of how Alma creates is by relying on “lots of” composers she made up, composers with different names, backgrounds, and emotional styles; she then calls upon these composers to help her in her writing when she is stuck. She uses imagination to open multiple channels, providing resources to which she otherwise wouldn’t have access. Alma Deutscher knows she has enough – enough ideas and enough help. Creatively, she has little reticence or resistance and is fluid in her movement forward. Alma has embraced her imagination as a deliberate tool and a constant companion. This results in decisiveness and consistent creative action.
For McClellan, it was a misconstrued use of his imagination that worked against him. In his last battle, at Antietam, he outnumbered his enemy more than two to one but his mind was so dedicated to not losing, he forgot to imagine he might win. The general stymied his own willingness and resources. Believing ultimately that what he had was insufficient, it was logical for him to hold himself back from engagement and likely victories.
Our use of imagination can open us to endless resources and creativity; it can also straitjacket us. Visions lead and mislead, and perception always determines the actions we take. Alma Deutscher seems to be a gifted anomaly, but part of her genius is her intuitive understanding that the “troops” available to her are endless. She doesn’t question whether she has what she needs. She knows she can access resources available to us all. Whether a wartime general, a gymnastics novice, or a child prodigy, we each have the means and ability – beyond what we can see – to win.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.