I used to live in a neighborhood with some old warehouse buildings that had been converted into furniture shops. One of these shops was supposed to be a lighting shop. It had no windows. Strolling past the place one day, I turned back on a whim, pulled open the huge, steel door and finally took a look inside.

To my surprise, the whole place was dark. Was it closed? I stepped further in and the door fell shut. A small, dim desk lamp revealed a stack of papers on a desk near the entrance where I stood. Before long, I noticed a guy sitting behind that stack of papers.

This guy, disheveled and somewhat disgruntled in my memory, stared back at me. With an air of weariness, he began flipping switches on a large panel. One by one, clusters of lights came on, five here, twelve there, until the flipping was complete: a loud electrical hum could now be heard as hundreds of lamps and fixtures of every conceivable variety blasted their light throughout the enormous interior – just for me.

I walked around, stunned by the brightness, as if I had been transported into a production of Haydn’s Creation oratorio during the “And there was light!” passage.

When I began heading for the exit, after a few moments of pretend shopping, I heard the switches being flipped again, as one section of lights went dark, then another, then another. And there was no more light!

Why would a lighting shop keep itself dark? Presumably to save power and keep the place from overheating. No point paying the electric bills for hundreds of lamps burning in the absence of customers. 

I’ve come to think of my experience in this lighting shop as an analogy for memory itself. My memory is like that dark warehouse interior. Much of the time, the lights are off and I can’t see – in brilliant color – all of the experiences I’ve had, all of the people I’ve known, all of the places I’ve been. But sometimes the right switches are flipped, the juice flows, and my memory lights up. Recollections become more vivid, intense, and tangible. In these moments I can see my grandmother’s kitchen and taste her tomato salad.

The point is that brilliant memory, like the lighting in the shop, consumes a sort of energy, call it “mental energy,” call it focus or alertness or drive. The same is true of any kind of imagination, whether we’re imagining the past, or the future, or imagining a real, living person we’re interacting with online, through written words alone.

As I go about my day, I’m constantly using my imagination in ways that require energy. Imagination isn’t free. We have to bring something to the process of imagination to get something out of it. But I’m not always aware of how much energy it demands and how much I’m actually bringing to the task.

It’s as though I’m trying to flip the switches to light up the past, but there’s not enough electricity available at the moment to power all those lights, so the past stays dark and dim. I look around and conclude that the past was dark and dim. I think of the future and the same thing happens. If I don’t currently have the mental reserves to fully illuminate my image of the future, I might spend my time “looking” at a dim, murky image of what the future might hold, and then grow gloomy about what that image shows me. It’s as though I had walked into that lighting shop but only two or three fixtures were turned on, out of hundreds available. I looked around and concluded that this paltry light was as bright as the shop could get, so the place wasn’t worth visiting.

Imagination brings a risk of false conclusions. We might conclude that the past was not as rich as it actually was, the future is not as promising as it might be – not because we lack the capacity for imagination – but because we are in the habit of imagining “on empty.” That is to say, we expect our imagination to perform at full capacity whenever we call upon it, and this expectation convinces us that whatever our imagination delivers to us is the best possible product. Whatever it shows us now must be all there is to show.

A negative cycle comes about where feel a bit down, so we look for some kind of consolation in the past or future, but we envision these incompletely and feel upset by what we see, which only depresses us further, sending us looking again, without a light.

I’ve become more aware of this as I’ve continued practicing meditation. I find my imagination is most vivid after I’ve spent some time not using it. And I see how when I jump restlessly from thought to thought, I can run out of “fuel.” It’s like when you sit in front of a TV, surfing from channel to channel, and while there might be some great shows playing, your own lazy posture and lack of attention to any particular show makes them all fade into a blur, and you say “There’s nothing on TV!”

Imagination is supposed to be a virtue and a lack of imagination is a shortcoming. But perhaps there’s a case to be made that we should use our imagination less – which is to say, we shouldn’t expect it to perform all the time, constantly replaying memories and thinking of hypothetical scenarios, like a TV we never shut off – and taking what it shows us as definitive.

To a person who thinks of the past and complains it was all a waste: don’t do that if you’re not well-rested enough to go on the journey back and see what’s really there. 

To a person who thinks of the future and finds it bleak: don’t do that if you’re exhausted at the moment. You’re probably seeing a tired image. But there’s good news in that. ■

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