Not everyone excels at flights of fancy, but for those stuck on the ground, maybe fantasizing can become a useful practice.
At a recent family party, someone excitedly mentioned the impending Game of Thrones finale. When I said I'd never watched the show, he ardently described its characters, setting, and plot. Later, someone else detailed her favorite novel, in which time-traveling librarians fight creatures of chaos. Later yet, someone breathlessly told me she spends hours each day playing Subnautica, a game set under an alien sea.
Clearly enthralled, all three were inviting me into alternate realities—from which I backed away as if handed musical instruments I cannot play.
I never fantasize. It's not that I don't want to. I just can't. Catastrophize—imagine accidents, illness, and shame—heck yeah. But fun, flourishy daydreams: Nope.
Asked by a therapist once to describe my fantasies, I blinked: My what?
A friend said my insomnia would end if I fantasized flying, sailing, or riding across vast landscapes.
Sure—until my imagined wings broke, canoes capsized, and horses threw me down cactus-coated crags.
Fantasy does not spring to all minds easily or automatically or naturally. To some, it never springs at all.
Maybe fantasy, like art and sports, is to some extent an inborn talent at which some excel—and become novelists, screenwriters, game designers, seers.
But surely some of us can't fantasize, not because we lack creativity but because certain situations squelch it: Depression crushes our curiosity and zest for even longtime favorite people, places, things.
Self-hatred also splits us off from everything we ever could or would love, including ourselves. It tells us we are useless, worthless, helpless, powerless—to tie our shoes or pass a spelling test, much less soar golden-winged through mirror-mountained otherworlds.
Self-hatred—and the trauma that so often spurs it—says we are unwanted and unwelcome even at the real-world parties of our real-world friends.
So if we feel unwanted and unwelcome even there, self-hatred says we would be barred and banned from their ethereal equivalents. Self-hatred says we're not allowed to fantasize; we haven't earned it; the span between our lustrous imagined selves and rotten real ones is laughably vast.
Self-hatred denies our right not only to roam fantasy planets but even to dare creating them. This is another way in which self-hatred disempowers us: because it knows imagination is a power, weaponizable.
Holocaust survivors have said that what helped them survive starvation was fantasizing delicious food. Imprisoned at Ravensbrück, Yehudit Aufrichtig and her friends conjured what they called "fantasy recipes" and meals such as a brunch comprising "potato soup with sour cream and laurel leaves, asparagus in sour cream and breadcrumbs, sunny-side-up egg, and beef in tomato sauce with macaroni," then "fried apple in vanilla sauce" for dessert.
For being unable to fantasize—for having all one's mental roads to Magic-Land shut down, barred, and barb-wired—I invented a name: dysfantasia.
Might it be hereditary? I never saw my mother invoke any lovely if-only reveries. Asked to play dolls with me, she froze, preferring word-games or trips to the mall. She had the lowest self-esteem I've ever seen.
And yes, living wholly in fantasies would be unhealthy. The real world needs looking at and looking after. Living in the present moment requires being here, now, hearing its thunder and enduring its dental drills.
But we need both. Conscious attention to the stop signs, symphonies and sheer cliffs of reality, but also occasional, volitional escape. We need reality and alternate realities, because the latter helps us face the former. Fantasies reveal our deep desires, exposing what excites and soothes us most, mapping our secret quests.
We all need our time-traveling librarians and games of thrones.
And while we cannot magically turn fantasy into reality, we can comb it for clues. Maybe I cannot manifest towers of multicolored macarons at will, but might I take a baking class? ... OK, I can't live underwater, but clearly I love-love-love the sea.
Can we dysfantasiacs tiptoe toward fantasy as we might teach ourselves to sing or sprint? Starting in tiny bits—say, thirty seconds straight: Imagine ourselves surfing or on Mars, like guided meditations with ourselves as guides? Our silver skin impervious to cacti, righting canoes in our minds? It's hard but I say worth a try.