If you were to conjure an imaginary friend, who or what would it be?
When my son was a toddler, we had a tough time keeping clothes on him. As cute as his clothes were no doubt, he just didn’t like being encumbered by it all. I could relate, I suppose, but that wasn’t an option for a dad.
The rub was that we lived and still do live in the mountains. So, for a good part of the year, his need to be free expressed itself in the winter wonderland of our backyard.
I marveled at his ability to play in the snow totally naked. Of course, I was concerned, too. But every parent starts out with the intention of being above God’s reproach; that quickly dissipates. Compromises are made, deals struck to keep the peace. So, my boy played naked in the snow. Everybody was happy.
One day when my guilt got the better of me, I went outside to check on him. I found him deep in conversation. Granted, kids are masters of the non sequitur and confusing word choices, but if you look closely, you’ll usually find a pretty clever thread of logic that traces back to something you said hours earlier. Not this time. He was having a perfectly logical conversation—it seemed—it just wasn’t with me. It was with somebody who clearly was not there, clothes or no clothes.
This was my first experience with imaginary friends.
My second experience came during another instance of questionable parenting. On a whim, I had decided to take my oldest daughter on a hike to a mountain lake. She was 5, maybe 6. Norton Lake was 5 miles away, and uphill, as mountain lakes tend to be. But, with her usual Buddha-like equanimity, she trekked along without a complaint. We had lunch, splashed around in the sky-blue lake and took a little rest in the sun.
It wasn’t long, though, before a gloom came over me. It settled in my stomach—an unruly knot of fear and desperation and guilt that parents get when they realize they have done something monumentally stupid with their child. I had overlooked the most basic axiom of the mountains: climbing up is the easy part, getting down is the rub. Forget that on Everest and people die. God knows what happens when you do that with a 5-year-old on a day hike.
That’s when I met Diamond and Rainbow. It seems these were two horses—splendid ones, no doubt—with whom my daughter was, apparently, well acquainted. Somehow fathoming the predicament her father had put her in, my daughter wrangled up Diamond and Rainbow and rode them all the way down the mountain—5 long miles. It was a miracle—circus-like, but one that got my daughter down to our car and dad off the hook for endangering his daughter.
Then there is Dewey. She is the imaginary friend of my youngest daughter. Dewey is a baby, but I have to say, a little menacing. Dewey is often pushing or kicking my daughter. Dewey sleeps a lot. She joins us for dinner but misbehaves. She doesn’t share very well. More than once, I thought it might be time to drop Dewey off on the steps of the local fire station. But lately, I’ve warmed to Dewey.
Of course, the first—my son’s—imaginary friend scared the hell out of me. When adults start to converse with the ether those around them start whispering words like schizophrenia and psychosis. Sadly, my parents—both medical people—were not alive to ask about this new development in our family, nor was Google then the magical font of knowledge it is today. I had, however, remained friends with a few of my dad’s medical school buddies who had become psychiatrists. They quickly put me at ease about the imaginary friend. They told me it was normal, maybe even a good thing. So, I embraced the newest member of our family, and those who were to follow.
Little did I know at the time, but scientists were studying imaginary friends and other developmental stages children experience on the way to social intelligence and what’s called “theory of mind,” a concept first formulated by Simon Baron-Cohen, Uta Frith, and Alan Leslie in 1985.
Theory of mind is not something we are born with, rather we develop it at a young age. And it is crucial to our ability to interact socially. It is an ability to recognize beliefs, knowledge, and emotions—essentially any mental state—in ourselves and others. What’s more, a child who has developed theory of mind is able to understand that his or her mental state—knowledge of something or belief, for example—may differ from that of someone else.
An often-cited experiment to see if a child has developed theory of mind is a false-belief task such as the Band-Aid box and pig figurine test. A child is shown a Band-Aid box and asked what he thinks is inside. Most likely he will say Band-Aids. Then that child is physically shown that inside the box there is actually a pig figurine, not Band-Aids.
Next, a second child enters the room who hasn’t seen inside the box. The first child will be asked what he thinks the second child will say when asked what’s in the box. If his response is “pig” it is evident he has not developed theory of mind; it is inconceivable to him that someone could believe something different from what he knows to be true.
A child who has developed theory of mind will respond “Band-Aids,” understanding that the second child thinks there are Band-Aids in there, even though there are not. It is a measure of a child’s understanding that someone else may believe something not only different from him, but that conflicts with reality.
What is not imaginary in the world today are the pitched battles we find ourselves in: red-blue, rural-urban, vaccination-no vaccination, health mandates-no health mandates, climate change-no climate change. And it strikes me that the parallel universes that have formed are partly due to our own failings. What we once fathomed as children—that others could believe something different from us, even if it were untrue—has somehow fallen from our understanding. It strikes me that theory of mind might just be the precursor to empathy, an emotion that we seemed to have collectively misplaced. Perhaps it is simply floating listlessly offshore in our minds, sort of like the hundreds of container ships off the coasts of Long Beach, Louisiana, New Jersey—all waiting to be found in the great supply chain breakdown of 2021.
As far as I know, I’ve never had an imaginary friend. But I have had an imaginary conversation. Many years ago, I was on a plane to Las Vegas, witnessing a little drama that was a middle-aged woman who had clearly availed herself of everything Las Vegas has to offer—big hair, Botox, gobs of makeup—trying to pick up a 19-year-old college student sitting next to her. Before I knew it, a friend—who was no longer alive—and I were in a humorous banter back and forth, silently, I think and hope, about this unlikely coupling, their future love children, and further adventures.
I do know at one point that I did laugh out loud, so then I was the lunatic on the plane. But what was so startling in retrospect is that the entire conversation was spontaneous—everything my friend said just sprung forth in my mind as if she were thinking it and saying it at that moment. There was never a moment of consciousness speaking to me: “This is what Kelly would think and say.” She just said it.
It was weird and unexplainable but thrilling in a way. It has never happened since.
No doubt our brains conjure things for a reason. Perhaps we need to puzzle through a problem, weigh our feelings about an issue, or maybe just have a laugh with an old friend. Too often we dismiss the conjuring. There can be wisdom there.
Musing about imaginary friends made me wonder what it is we seek in our real friends. No doubt, everyone has a different answer to that question; what comes to mind are fortitude, wisdom, compassion, trust, or maybe just endurance.
I started at the very beginning and pondered the people who have been either at my side, or right there in my mind’s eye for a lifetime: some from kindergarten, others from sports teams, high school and college, guiding, ski patrolling, the writing world, other professional experiences. Some I haven’t seen for years, and may not for many more, or ever. But good friends, I’ve learned, carry on a relationship as if you never left.
The thread that tied everyone together was humor. To a tee, my friends have made me laugh. If you make me laugh and I make you laugh, then there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be friends. Doesn’t matter too much if you think there’s a pig in that Band-Aid box or not.
After I had this little epiphany, I felt a bit shallow, like all of those grand qualities—fortitude, wisdom, compassion, trust, endurance—were lost on me. I don’t think they are. But, in the end, humor for me has always been the wellspring of joy. And joy is really the final currency. Take away that, and we’re doomed.