“What if I had been born a prince,” he often asked himself. “Or a shepherd? Or a woodsman? My life might have been better, it might have been worse, but, at least, it would have been different. Oh, what would life be like, if it were different?”
Because Charles had such a powerful imagination, sitting in his sandbox or playing in the woods, he could imagine these different lives with such intensity and clarity that his actual life, however good, always seemed pale in comparison. Even when he imagined his life being much worse, the imagined difference was tantalizing.
“Life can’t be like this forever,” he’d think to himself, during class, as the teacher droned, or at recess, as the other children ran in ceaseless circles around him.
“I’m sure, one day, somewhere, it will be different than this.”
Eventually, Charles grew up to be a very unlucky man. Despite the best efforts of his parents, teachers, and every adult who had the chance to try, he never lost his powerful imagination.
“Yes, this is love,” he would tell the woman he loved, “but I can imagine another kind of love, a different kind of love. Better or worse, I must find it!”
“Yes, this is fine work,” he would tell his employer, “but I can imagine another kind of work, a different kind of work. Better or worse, I must find it.”
“Yes, this is a fine place to live,” he would tell his friends, “but I can imagine another place to live, a different kind of place to live. Better or worse, I must find it.”
One day, in a tiny village on the other side of the world, while he was living the simple kind of life he had always imagined would be so beautiful, but he now found somewhat stifling, Charles imagined what it would be like not to have a powerful imagination. He imagined this life with such intensity and clarity that he understood, for the first time, that the life he had been living was very strange.
“Most people are satisfied with their lives,” he thought to himself, “or they are, at least, struggling to be satisfied with the life they have. I, instead, am always chasing some other, different kind of life, and it’s all because of this powerful imagination of mine.”
Determined to rid himself of his powerful imagination, to see what life would be life without it, he visited the old woman who lived at the outskirts of his village, at end of an old trail, next to an ancient well.
“Old woman, do you have anything that will cure me of my powerful imagination,” he asked.
The old woman replied, from within the shadows of her cellar, “It is rare for someone as old as you to have a powerful imagination, but there are equally rare medicines that can help.”
She moved among her very many jars, pinching a bit of this and adding a touch of that, until she was satisfied with the contents of the small burlap bag she carried with her.
She gave the bag to Charles and said, “Use this to make a tea. Drink it every day. Your imagination will go away.”
Charles did as he was told and, very soon, his imagination ceased to be powerful. Shortly after that, it was so weak he couldn't even imagine what it was like to have a powerful imagination. From that point on, his life became pleasant and, when it wasn't pleasant, he was happy to work to make it pleasant again.
There was, however, beneath it all, a curious absence -- a lack -- of which he could not quite rid himself.
Unable to imagine what this lack might be, he returned to the old woman, who lived outside the village, for more medicine.
“There is no medicine that will cure you of this lack,” she said and she placed a long bony finger on his chest, where his heart beat. “Medicine treats only the symptom and not the cause.”
“What can I do,” Charles asked.
“You have a choice,” the old woman replied. “Continue to drink your tea and the part of you that longs for possibility will always go hungry. Give up the tea and your satisfactions will be forever fleeting, but you will have the power to feed the hunger that is the heart of your being.”
Unable to imagine what his life would be like without the tea, Charles had no choice but to allow his imagination to return -- at least a little. He could not make the choice any other way.
On the third day without the tea, Charles found himself imagining what his simple hut might be like, if it were less simple. Then, he found himself imagining what it would be like to live in a simple hut in some other part of the world. Before long, he was imagining what it would be like to live in a luxurious house in an opulent land far far away from where he was. Although his imagination was not yet powerful, it was strong enough that he could almost taste the air of his luxurious home. His hunger for change, difference, and possibility growled.
With his imagination partly restored, Charles reflected on what the old woman had told him. “I can drink this tea each and every day, be content with my life as it is on the whole, but carry with me an unfulfilled longing for possibility, or I can stop drinking this tea and my satisfactions will be fleeting, but I will be unable to feed my hunger for possibility.” Then, he imagined one more and final possibility.
Charles turned to his stove and put some water on to boil. He brewed a cup of tea and drank it down quickly. He had imagined a life where the lack disappears, like so many others things, simply because it is ignored long enough.