The Devil’s Details: The Tragedy of a Wasted Imagination

Imagination is an exceptionally powerful thing. It is how we decide; how we play; how we learn. Even those of us who would claim to suffer from a poor imagination nonetheless exercise it on a daily basis: if you’re trying to decide which way to go home, you are essentially imagining which way is going to be best.

But sadly, the imagination often stops at these limited, practical uses. As children, our imaginations were with us. Our companion, our best friend, our life outside of life, imagination was the key that unlocked doors to a world more real and infinite than our own.* And as we grow older, and our lives become overwhelmed by those practical things, our imagination dwindles. We can console ourselves that we still read, that we watch thoughtful and engaging television, but that is really a poor substitute.

This is not to say that we have to act like children (well Einstein did, but look where he got us). All it really takes is a willingness to stop, to think, and to look beyond the surface.

I’m as guilty of this as anybody. I recently shared some photos of gravestones I took. This was one of my favorites:

grave-of-michael-popeI took the picture because I thought the gravestone looked interesting. I was caught by the flowers, and so I took the snap. For a while, it was my favorite simply because of the composition, the way that the image lent itself to colorized black and white, and the hint of further graves behind.

And then, after I’d been working on this picture for some time, I actually stopped to read the epitaph. It reads:



1918 — 1993


And then I started thinking about what this meant. The remains of a man lay beneath this stone. That man’s name was Michael; perhaps he went by Mike. Mike was a boy, once; his childhood might have been good, or it might have been terrible: he was eleven when the stock market crashed and threw the world into one of the worst economic depressions the world has ever seen.

Mike was twenty-one when World War II began; it’s likely he was drafted to fight. There is quite the possibility that Mike has killed people. How did that affect him for the rest of his life?

Mike knew someone else in his family; another Michael Pope – perhaps his father. Mike was thirty-four when this Michael died. This Michael himself was an astonishing ninety-four when he died. Think how incredible that is; when Michael Pope Sr. was ten, there was no such thing as radio. When he died, there was color TV, rock music, two wars whose tragic repercussions lasted long beyond his own life; there were even prototypical computers, though he might never have heard of them.

Our Mike was only seventy-five when he died in 1993. That’s not young, but it’s not old. Why didn’t he live as long as his father? Did he contract pneumonia? Did he suffer from dementia, or alzheimer’s disease? Perhaps he simply fell of a ladder. At some point, Mike took a final breath, and never breathed again. Who was with him when that happened? Maybe he knew his death was coming; maybe he never got to say goodbye to his family.

Of course, Mike might never have had any further family; there are no other Popes interred here. But there is one thing that feels certain: someone loved him very, very much. Someone loved him enough to commemorate him with a black marble gravestone. Someone who, twenty years later, still visits his grave to leave flowers.


* Children these days suffer from a world that stifles the growth of their own imagination. For your children’s sakes, don’t let them while away their childhood with video games and television; from time to time, send them outside with a stick.

13 thoughts on “The Devil’s Details: The Tragedy of a Wasted Imagination

  1. I love the photo, the reflection of the flowers, the contrast between this stone and all the others . . . very nice.

  2. Video games can be used to ignite imagination as well, actually. I appreciate the beauty of a simple day outside with my son, but I’ve also engaged in imaginative play with him using our avatars in world of warcraft. In other words, yes, I’ve roleplayed with my 11-year-old, who was 9 the first time we tried this. I still remember the way his adult worgen (a type of werewolf) in that game ended the RP “Well, I gotta go, Dad’s makin grilled cheese.”

    video games get such a bad rap, but I find they often get my imagination going while I play them. I never just play a video game, I’m coming up with entire backgrounds and character histories separate from the surface stories as I play. Even in games as simple as pokemon in which I’ll stop playing just to research the perfect nickname on the internet when I find a new pokemon I like. My husband says this quality, if anything else about me, definitely screams “I’m a writer” that I can play a game as simple and mindless as pokemon and create entire stories about the characters and her little animal friends to entertain my brain. I can already see I’m passing this ability down to my son.

    So yeah, outside in the yard with a stick to figure things out and enjoy some fresh air is good, but you can be creatively engaged with some video games as well! You just have to open your mind to these what ifs as you did for these tomb stones with the characters presented to you (or the ones you create).

    Awesome post though! Thanks!

    • I think there is a spark of imagination to be found in everything, if we only try. Funny, when I play a video game I have to stop and find the perfect name for my characters, too, and I also imagine them in detail. I’ve never run across anyone else who did this (that I know of) until now. I think the trick to imagination is just to engage in mental play with everything in our world. “What if…” “How would…” etc. As we get older we encase ourselves in rules and boundaries and ideas about how the world is, and we forget to think about what would be different if we flexed those rules, or ignored them completely (at least in our imagination). It comes easier to children because they don’t have the “it’s this way” engrained in them, already.

      • You just took the essence of my comment and made it far more concise and exact. This is precisely how I feel about imagination, not just its under-estimated use in video games. Thanks!

        My husband sometimes chuckles at me and shakes his head when I find yet another new thing in a story or game to name and I’ve got about 10 internet pages open, a few books beside me, referencing and mashing things together. When it comes to my stories, I simply cannot get into the mood if the character has the wrong name. I try and always end up scrapping it, eventually change the main character’s name again, still not right, scrap heap. When I find the right name, I find the character and personality; their essence.

        Either way, I love the way you put it in response. “…The trick to imagination is just to engage in mental play with everything in our world.” I cannot not do this, I get bored unnecessarily.

        • A concise response indeed! Names for characters are a blessing and a curse. The wrong name can destroy not only the character, but the entire story itself. I’ve pretty much gone with letting the character present their name to me; very occasionally I’ll build a name based on a meaning from the language of that character’s background, but usually the name comes because it just couldn’t be anything else. I used to do the try-and-fail approach of running through enormous lists of names, but in the end I just got confused.

      • It’s the mental play that is so very vital (in fact, one of the reasons I started the Devil’s Details series). It’s so easy to forget to play with what’s around you. I have a little blue sand timer on my desk, and sometimes I like to tip it and watch the sand pour through, and wonder what it would be like to be in there.

    • It’s funny, because I’m not anti-video game at all (my wife is, though). In fact, I’ve spent probably far too much time playing games of all sorts, from ones that have made me think (and hard!) to ones where I mindlessly blow away bad guys. One of my favorite computer game series was the Marathon games in the early 90s; although it was essentially a first-person shooter, it had one of the most convoluted and in-depth story lines I’ve ever come across in this form of media.

      In fact, I think that really is the crux of the matter: games are really another kind of media, albeit an interactive one. And like any media, should be consumed in moderation. If there’s anything I’m “against”, it’s the idea of sitting in front of a screen for ten hours a day when the sun is shining outside.

      I love the interactiveness you bring to it with your son!

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