The Idler: In Another World

I have found, among a certain type of person, a dislike of daydreaming of whiling away an afternoon in the sun or in the living room easy chair and simply thinking. Some think it absolutely strange—and the Catholics among them, perhaps even sinful—that I (college educated, from a good family, and so on) should regard daydreaming as one of life’s finer pleasures. I have been told, especially by the wary Catholics, to avoid the practice altogether: there is too much temptation involved. It is better, they say, when you feel your mind wander, to stick your head in a book, or (even better) to begin a Rosary or some other prayer. Do anything, they seem to say, to avoid the dreaded daydream; it is unproductive and inefficient. How many times have we heard parents or teachers tell their charges to bring their heads down from the clouds and “get back to work”?

To my mind, those with any antipathy to letting the mind wander over the landscape of one’s thoughts are really missing the point. While I agree that a passion for daydreaming can be abused—like anything else— and that its effects are not always beneficial, it still seems to me that daydreaming and having idle moments and thoughts are really divine gifts, and like all gifts, have a purpose and should be used.

There are, however, guidelines for their use, as daydreaming is a tendency that can be misused. A woman who has skill with computers misuses this skill by becoming a “hacker”; a man good with his hands misuses this skill by, say, picking locks and becoming a thief; and so on. So it is with daydreaming; we must always keep in mind the propriety of daydreaming. Indeed, that word describes it exactly, for its root word (the ever-reliable Oxford English Dictionary informs me) denotes something that is one’s own, personal property for example. And what can be more personal than your own thoughts? That is why one should daydream only on one’s own time, as the saying goes, and not when a class lecture or business presentation becomes a little dry. For, in doing otherwise, we commit a double disservice: one to the daydream, and another to the task which we are ignoring.

Daydreaming can be seen as a version of those dreams which we experience while sleeping. This nocturnal dreaming, we are told by those who study such things, is the mind’s way of storing, evaluating, and organizing the vast amount of material it receives during our waking hours. Some information is saved; some discarded; and some is shifted or placed in new combinations. Dreaming is, in short, the mind’s way of putting our subconscious house in order.

Why not, then, the same purpose for those dreams we have during our waking moments? Our daydreaming allows the conscious mind to put itself in order.There have been many times when, during particularly grueling study sessions or intense mental activity, I have taken a mental break to let my mind lazily peruse the still half-digested material, without concentrating on the material itself. Afterwards, my mind refreshed, I return to my task, more often than not with greater insight into the work at hand. Some would say that this is an inefficient way of processing material; my answer is simply that we are not machines, and the strictly efficient and logical is not always the best way of organizing our thoughts, or indeed, much else (consider all those economic and social systems organized on supposedly “efficient” principles). We are organized along organic, not scientific, patterns, as Burke recognized long ago, and sometimes it is better to sacrifice efficiency for a breath of fresh air.

Part of the problem lies in our terminology. We speak of the mind as “drifting,” of the daydreamer’s head as “being in the clouds,” our minds “wander,” with no direction, and other phrases of this type. These terms, however, should not always have the disdainful tone given to them by the denigrators of daydreaming. Take, for example, the word wander. I have yet to discover the error in the practice of letting my mind wander on occasion. There are certain boundaries to what may be considered legitimate wandering, of course, but within these limits the practice seems positively beneficial. Just as an evening constitutional is good for one’s physical well-being, a mental jaunt helps the well-being of the mind, and unlike the former, can be done anywhere, and in any type of weather. Indeed, what better accompanies a good walk than a healthy ambling of the mind, if I may so call it? A man who only concentrates on the end of his walk (or, more likely in our health-crazed days, the medicinal effects thereof), will miss the pleasures of the walk itself. Likewise, one who focuses too sharply will lose the advantages of reflecting upon the larger picture, which is what daydreaming affords.

To describe daydreaming, the word I have found which best expresses my meaning is glide (as opposed, say, to drift), for the following reason. Drift implies a lack of control; a person whose thoughts drift has no control over them, and this could lead to a bad end. The mind of the person is borne aloft by the prevailing mental winds, with no direction. Not so day-dreaming, where I let my thoughts glide over the vast expanse of the territories of the mind. They are floating aloft, it is true, but always I retain an element of control, somewhat like the technique of a hang glider as opposed to that of a parachutist. To me, the mind only drifts when it is approaching sleep.

To me, then, daydreaming, is as valuable a mental activity as any other such activity: studying, reading, or whatever. In daydreaming we are not opening our minds and letting go, but rather, we are opening our minds and taking in new ideas, thoughts, associations. Chesterton once said that an open mind, like an open mouth, should close on something. But, of course, the mind must first be open, and it is never more open than when daydreaming. Only after it has opened can the mind chew on things, spit out some, and swallow others. Only when the two halves are joined—both the opening and closing of the mind—does the full mental process occur. As an aside, Chesterton, besides being great for so many things, is great daydreaming material. His books offer so much upon which to ponder.

How do daydreams begin? Usually with some concrete event that we experience, or something we come across that we cannot get out of our minds: a fragment of conversation, or some poetry, a painting or a drawing. What sparks the process varies from individual to individual. From this event, the mind creates, almost spontaneously, yet with a kind of inner order—and not without some steering from our consciousness—a string of associations and images, all of which are loosely connected around that initial experience.

Perhaps the best description of the advantages that accrue to daydreaming was given by the writer Irving Babbitt in his book Literature and the American College. Imagination—and its vehicle, daydreaming—are part of the maturation of an individual, from the receptive attitude of the child to the reflective posture of the adult. A child’s dreams are receptive: they accept everything without hesitation or analysis. With maturity and adulthood comes analysis: we think about thinking. In Babbitt’s words, we begin “to coordinate the scattered elements of knowledge and relate them not only to the intellect but to the will and character; that subtle alchemy by which learning is transmitted into culture. Babbitt considers this process of assimilating knowledge into one’s being, and the transformation of that knowledge into culture, as very near to creation. He adds that it is the very purpose of education to inspire this reflective attitude in us, so that our minds may not become infected with narrow-mindedness or provinciality, a malady all too common today in those responsible for education.

So daydreaming, far from being a waste of time and effort, or from being merely the pastime of children, is instead the first sign of maturity because it exercises our imagination, which in turn enables us to collect the disparate branches of knowledge into a coherent whole. To use the words of the author Coventry Patmore, this process is “the power which traverses at a single glance the whole external Universe.”

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, don’t you think?

Gerald J. Russello


Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.