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The Value of Daydreaming

Gregory E. Reynolds

“There never used to be so much noise here on the island,” observed longtime Little Diamond Island resident Hal Hackett back in the nineties. “People seem to always be fixing something instead of relaxing and enjoying this place.” His lovely craftsman summer cottage looked down upon the harbor in Portland, Maine. He had invited us to stop for a glass of lemonade as we passed by on the path to our cottage. He reminisced about changing attitudes on the island since his childhood. The sense of community was strained; people were more concerned to define their property lines. Peace and quiet were becoming rare. The frenetic energies of modern life were intruding on this place which was designed for daydreaming. This was two decades ago, before the Internet was a household presence.

This year my family vacationed at a lake in Vermont. Each morning as I wandered into the kitchen to get my coffee, I observed my grown children each sitting at the dining table with their coffee, laptops, and their work—each connected to their offices. In the era of the soccer mom, I have frequently worried about children bearing the weight of heavy schedules. When do they get to daydream? Then, of course, there’s immersion in all those screens, beguiling them to think virtual reality is preferable to real life, and in some way displacing the imagination, which feeds our daydreams.

But I, as a pastor, have a problem, too. I’m finding that two out of three scheduled pastoral visits get cancelled and rescheduled. Sometimes this leads to an unexpected night off. But I feel compelled to work—yes, I know, there’s probably a twelve-step program out there somewhere for me. I can only imagine the tortured confessions of fellow workaholics, to which I do not intend to subject myself. That in itself helps me resist the temptation to inquire about such groups. Besides, it would just be another thing to schedule.

Some wit recently suggested that we will soon be abandoning our searches for “hot spots” in public spaces, in favor of “cool spots,”—places free of electronic intrusion—locations designed to concentrate the mind, like a positive version of Johnson’s famous appointment with the gallows. But best of all, even laying the book or journal aside, is daydreaming, which, by the way, can also be done at night. I find after hours the best for disconnecting.

Is it any wonder that the only piece of bad news in outgoing NEA chair Dana Gioia’s 2009 final report on reading, “Reading on the Rise,”[1] is that the reading of poetry has continued to decline. Even a favorite editorial writer recently lumped poets in with the dilettante, second-generation, trust fund rich. Poetry is the literature par excellence of daydreamers. Walter Mitty’s early twentieth-century daydreaming[2] was thought to be a disease we moderns should consider vaccinating out of existence. But, unlike polio, it is not, I would argue, a disease, but a cure for our modern dis-ease.

My concern is for fellow Christians and church officers who claim a single book to be the main course of their soul’s nourishment. King David, a few years before the advent of electronic communication, was no less a very busy man. But he made it his business to step out of the fray frequently, perhaps a habit formed in his shepherding days, to daydream. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:1–2).

Some might aver that daydreaming is not the same as meditation. But I would counter by asserting that, while the two activities are not synonymous, daydreaming is an essential ingredient in true meditation. It is true that the dictionary definition of daydreaming is: “a series of pleasant thoughts that distract one’s attention from the present.”[3] But “meditation” in Psalm 1 is a kind of musing, and musing requires undistracted consideration of God’s communication to us. Since these are ultimately life-giving pleasant thoughts, perhaps we can alter the definition of daydreaming something like this: “a series of pleasant thoughts, cultivated by removing oneself from distractions, in order to focus one’s attention on our relationship with the Lord.” Even the dictionary definition can be understood eschatologically by the Christian. And while not all meditation on God’s Word is pleasant, for example its revealing our sin, it leads to ultimate pleasantness in communion with our God and our neighbor.

Of course, there is another dimension to daydreaming that I have not yet accounted for. That is serendipity. Again the dictionary is helpful:

the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity | a series of small serendipities.... coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”[4]

When the soil is good, a surprise flower will often appear, unplanted, blown in by the wind. Among thesaurus synonyms for serendipity are good fortune and providence. I believe that God created our minds for meditation with the serendipitous ability to connect ideas in a mysterious way that defies formulation. One example is found in our application of the Word we are meditating upon to our daily lives and relationships.

In the absence of times and places conducive to daydreaming, I fear the famine of good and great thoughts. We chase the muses away, amusing ourselves to death. Without such thoughts, ministers of the Word will necessarily be superficial, perfectly suited to feed the superficial minds our culture is cultivating. Without cultivating deep relationships with God, ourselves, and others, we succumb to the perpetual connectivity of modern life that immerses us in mediated social realities that snuff our mental solitude and spiritual development. A deficit in mind renewal exposes the Christian to the default position or world conformity (Rom. 12:1–2), the pressures of which are increasing apace.

And it should not escape the reader’s notice that David wrote Psalm 1 and many other poems, called psalms. More than a third of the Bible is written in poetic form. So every minister, elder, and deacon loves poetry whether he appreciates it or not. Plato worried that writing would rob the mind of its furnishings, since the mnemonic orientation of oral tradition would be undermined. Print, hard drives, and the cloud only exacerbate this tendency. The Bible is structured to encourage remembering God’s Word. In the oral culture in which it was written believers had no choice. We, on the other hand, must choose to furnish our minds with material upon which to meditate. Daydreaming without something worth dreaming about will only cultivate empty souls, “like the chaff that the wind drives away.”

A well-lived life can only grow out of a well-cultivated interior. Emerson recognized this when he observed, “The saint and poet seek privacy to ends most public and universal.”[5] David put it this way: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Ps. 1:3). So, unscheduled—daydreaming—time may represent the most important spaces on our calendars. The serendipity of solitude is imperative.

Recommended Readings

  • William Deresiewicz, “The End of Solitude,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2009. Reprinted in Mark Bauerlein, ed., The Digital Divide: Arguments for and against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, 2011), 307–17.
  • Alexander Pope, “Ode on Solitude.”

Endnotes

[1] Dana Gioia, “Reading on the Rise,” http://www.nea.gov/research/readingonrise.pdf.

[2] James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” The New Yorker, March 18, 1939, 19–20. This was made into a movie in 1947.

[3] New Oxford American Dictionary.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Deresiewicz, “The End of Solitude,” in Mark Bauerlein, ed., The Digital Divide: Arguments for and against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social  Networking (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, 2011), 316.

Ordained Servant Online, August 2012.

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