Active Hope

How Our Imagination Gets Switched Off

from Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power

By Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone | Posted 3/25/23

From an early age, we are schooled in a worldview that values facts over fantasies. The term dreamer is used as a dismissive put-down when someone's ideas are considered unrealistic; daydreaming in the classroom can even be a punishable offense.

To develop our visioning ability, let's start by recognizing how it has become so undervalued. As Quaker futurist Elise Boulding comments: "Several generations of children have had daydreaming bred out of them. Our literacy is confined to numbers and words. There is no image literacy."2

After decades of research into how the brain works, we're beginning to understand that our two cerebral hemispheres function in different ways.3 While the left side thinks in terms of words and rational logic, the right side works more with images and patterns, helping us to integrate complex information and to sense the larger shape of things.

Since our educational system focuses almost exclusively on words and numbers, it is as though we are being taught to use only half our brain. A simple first step in developing our visioning ability is to recognize it as a form of intelligence that is both valuable and learnable.

To underline the crucial importance of visioning, consider how many aspects of our present reality started out as someone's dream. There was a time when much of what is now the United States was a British colony, when women didn't have the vote, and when the slave trade was seen as essential to the economy.

To change something, we need to first hold in our mind and heart the possibility that it could be different. Stephen Covey, in his bestselling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes: "'Begin with the end in mind' is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There's a mental or first creation, and physical or second creation to all things."4

Imagining possible futures is a surefire way to develop foresight. If we're interested only in "facts," we limit ourselves to looking at what has already happened, which is a bit like trying to drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror. To avoid crashing, we need to look where we're going. Since we can't know for sure what will happen, we are limited to considering possibilities by applying a combination of experience, awareness of trends, and imagination. While experience equips us well for dealing with familiar situations, our imagination is essential in formulating creative responses to new challenges.

Liberating Our Imagination

A design principle that boosts creative thinking is "What comes before how." First identify what you'd like to have happen; working out how comes later. If we exclude options just because we can't immediately see how they can happen, we block out many of the more exciting possibilities that might inspire us. An important distinction is to be made between the creative phase, in which we generate ideas and possibilities, and the editing phase, in which we choose and evaluate them. Placing an embargo on editing in this first stage liberates our creativity.

Our intention in the creative phase is to catch a vision so compelling that it touches us emotionally. To remain motivated during difficult times, we need to really want our vision to happen. When what we hope for seems beyond our power, however, we are likely to hear a voice inside us saying, "There's no point in even thinking about this; it just isn't going to happen." To hold on to an inspiring vision, we need to stop ourselves from shooting it down inside our minds before it has a chance to take form. What helps here is recognizing the difference between static and process thinking.

Static thinking assumes that reality is fixed and solid, resistant to change. When people say things like "The problem is human nature; it is never going to change" or "You can't change the system," they're taking this approach. They are viewing situations as if they are like pictures hanging on a wall: if a new idea or way of doing things isn't already in the picture, they see it as unrealistic (see figure 15). This view limits our sense of what is possible; if nothing inspiring is on the horizon, we can easily fall into apathy and resignation.

fig 15

With process thinking, we view reality more as a flow in which everything is continually moving from one state to another. Each moment, like a frame in a movie, is slightly different from the one before. These tiny changes from frame to frame generate the larger changes seen over time (see figure 16).

fig 16

If something is not in the picture at the moment, that doesn't mean it won't be later on. This way of conceiving reality sees existence as an evolving story rather than as predefined. Because we can never know for sure how the future will turn out, it makes more sense to focus on what we'd like to have happen and then to do our bit to make it more likely. That's what Active Hope is all about.

Three Practices That Help Us Catch Inspiration

There was once an inventor who sat for hours every day in a special soundproofed room. With a pencil in his hand and a pad of paper on his desk, he was waiting for ideas. When they came, he would make a note and then return to his waiting. This inventor is modeling three practices that can help us catch an inspiring vision.

1. Create Space

The first is simply creating space. When we're too busy, our attention is so occupied that it leaves little room for anything new to enter. That is why people often remark that their most inspiring moments come when they are on vacation, out for a walk, or taking a shower. Allowing ourselves quiet moments, even to daydream, opens a space into which inspiring thoughts can flow. Such pauses can be surprisingly productive: Thomas Edison came up with many of his inventions while lying on a couch in his workshop. It was a daydream about a snake eating its tail that led German chemist Friedrich August Kekule to discover the ring structure of benzene molecules.

2. Intention and Attention

The second practice for catching inspiration brings together two tools freely available to us all: intention and attention. By placing himself in the soundproofed room, the inventor was making himself fully available to any creative impulses that might arise. His heightened alertness was like that of a cat waiting by a mousehole. If a bright idea was to show itself, he didn't want to miss it.

3. Pen and Paper

The third practice involved his use of pen and paper.An inspiring thought or vision is like a seed: in order for it to grow into something, it needs to be planted, nurtured, and revisited often. We can do that only if we remember it. Part of catching inspiration is finding some way of holding on to it. We don't necessarily have to do that through writing, but we need an answer to the question "How will I remember this a year from now?"

These three practices are the key ingredients of a guidance system that helps us find and follow the purposes that call us. There are many different ways of making space, of focusing our intention to catch an inspiring vision, and of anchoring what comes up so that we don't forget it. We'll be looking at a few approaches in more detail; it is worth experimenting with a range of them to find the ones that suit you best. The core principle here is that we can do more than passively wait for inspiration — we can invite it in. We can also train ourselves to tune in to visionary signals.

Since the best way of anchoring a vision is to act on it and make it part of our lives, we need a way of linking our larger hopes with specific steps we can take. Visioning therefore involves three closely related stages:

  1. What? When looking at a specific situation, what would you like to see happen?
  2. How? How do you see this coming about? The second stage involves describing the steps needed in order for the larger vision to occur and possible pathways by which these steps could take place.
  3. My role? The first level identifies the desired destination, the second level maps out the story of getting there, and the third identifies your role in this story: What can you do to help the vision come about?


  1. The full speech is available on NPR: /122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety?t=1639049546882.
  2. Elise Boulding, "Turning Walls into Doorways," Inward Light 47, no. 101 (Spring 1986).
  3. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke, combines her personal experience with neuroscience research in describing the different roles of our two cerebral hemispheres. See Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey (New York: Penguin, 2009).
  4. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 99.

©2022 by Joanna Macy, PhD and Chris Johnstone. All rights reserved.

AuthorsJoanna Macy, PhD and Chris Johnstone are the authors of Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power. ...

Active Hope

Excerpted from the book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power ©2022 by Joanna Macy, PhD and Chris Johnstone. Printed with permission from