It’s been awhile since I’ve even heard the term…daydreaming. As a child in the 1950’s I daydreamed…a lot. It was an option as I flew out the front door, my mom’s favorite refrain ringing in my ears. “Go outside and play!” Free of schedules, free of chores, free of homework. My brain and I were in control of my body, willing it to do…whatever…or…nothing at all.
I could daydream…imagining make-believe worlds so different from the one in which I lived. Or I could let my mind float…somewhere…out there. Hovering with the butterflies, soaring with the birds, crawling with the insects.
Technicolor and high-definition were creations of my own intellect. Heightening the vibrancy or tweaking the images were mine to control…without buttons and knobs. I had time…to daydream. Pity today’s children. They’ve no time to daydream.
In Praise of the Summer Daydream
by Danny Heitman
As another summer arrives at our doorstep, I’ve been thinking of what my 11-year-old son told me not long ago on a long drive back from a weekend of camping. “If it’s OK with you,” Will said from the back seat, “I’m just going to sit here and daydream for a while.”
I was heartened that Will had decided to claim a few moments for mental wandering after two days devoted to the outdoor regimens of his Boy Scout troop. But as I gazed through the rearview at the woods receding from view, I had to wonder if Will’s plans would produce the desired result.
Daydreaming, after all, is something that tends to defy planning. The best daydreams just happen, serendipitously, as we’re doing something else–the brain slipping its leash for a random walk away from work, or class, or the Sunday sermon gone on too long.
But my son’s sense of daydreaming as a pastime requiring a certain amount of room in the day–a slow half-hour or so when thoughts can float like balloons into the waiting sky–seemed a wise recognition of the freedom needed to let a mind go. Summer, in our ideal vision of the season, seems a natural incubator for daydreaming, as office schedules slacken, and beach vacations beckon, and the close of school liberates children from campus.
But in squaring off his daydreaming time the way that a grown-up might pencil in an appointment with the dentist or CPA, Will reminded me of the degree to which kids these days tend to think in schedules, even in summer.
Summer camps nudge America’s children from one enrichment activity to another, and little-league sports perpetually point their little eyes toward the urgency of a ball in play. Do youngsters have any real chance for daydreaming during the vacation months–or in any other time of the year?
A daydream is a stolen pleasure–a moment or two pleasantly robbed from some more obviously useful task as the brain leaps a fence, goes adventuring and, with any luck, returns to active duty before anyone knows it’s been AWOL.
But as texts and tweets and ringing cellphones keep a constant claim on attention, such mental escapes can seem all but impossible for youngsters and grown-ups alike.
If an awareness-raising campaign for daydreaming seems in order, then there’s no better role model for the cause than the title character of James Thurber‘s 1939 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” A genius at mental digression, the unassuming Mitty evades the tedium of errands with his wife by casting himself as the star of several fantasies, alternately trying on the roles of rakish military commander, ingenious surgeon, crafty murder suspect, and tragic hero facing the firing squad.
Thurber’s story took on a life of its own, proving wildly popular among careworn Americans fighting World War II. Readers seemed to know that even in the midst of a global conflict–or perhaps because of it–a little mental doodling like Mitty’s could do them a lot of good.
But Thurber was amused, some years after his free-associating hero first appeared in print, to discover that a British medical journal had coined the term “Walter Mitty syndrome” to describe “pathological daydreaming.”
Maybe it was inevitable that Mitty would be appropriated to equate daydreaming with illness. Today, as concern about attention deficit disorder informs the popular culture, a practiced daydreamer might find himself classified not as an artist of improvisation, but a case to be cured.
Long before Walter Mitty’s wife tried in vain to return him permanently to reality, the world had its daydreamers–and diligent guardians bent on reforming them.
When asked how he happened to create his famous daydreamer, Thurber suggested that he didn’t so much invent Mitty as simply extend a lengthy tradition.
“There were Walter Mittys, under other names, in the writings of dozens of men ahead of my time, including Shakespeare,” he told a reader.
So maybe, given its genius for subversion, daydreaming might survive–and even thrive–in a summer that’s probably going to be much busier than it needs to be.
(Mr. Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House” (LSU Press, 2008)).
I read Thurber’s Walter Mitty in high school. I don’t think it was such a big deal at the time because I indulged in daydreams.
It’s been awhile since my mind floated skyward…in search of…nothing in particular. I’m not sure adults are able to daydream without reality undermining our efforts at every turn. Too many concerns, worries, stresses. No time to waste; too many tasks at hand.
Do we outgrow daydreaming as we age? Or have we been brainwashed into accepting, that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop?” I heard that a few times from the nuns who were charged with educating me for 13 years, including kindergarten.
Within the last couple of decades the good sisters have been replaced with enormous school workloads and extracurricular activities, not to mention texting and Facebooking. Every moment is earmarked and spoken for…before it’s even materialized. The devil’s had to find lazy-bones elsewhere…not that he’s had any trouble on that front.
Kids need time…to grow their own “brand.” Daydreaming provides fertile ground for imagining…and creating.
…isn’t that how great minds like da vinci…edison…madame curie…chihuly…and others like them…invent, discover, and create,?…
I do feel sorry for kids these days. No time for daydreaming. One in my family has an event almost every weekend and an activity every night! I am all for extra activities but that seems a bit much to me.
Too much busy-ness means less time…for quiet thought…as well as for chilling with family and loved ones. We’re a society that’s constantly on the move…to where…I’ve no clue.