I stumbled upon a curious phrase the other day: “Lotus Eaters”. It’s a reference to people that fail to escape their daydreaming and who never turn their dreams into reality, if I can be permitted to paraphrase. The etymology is due to the fact that lotus flowers and fruit are narcotic and people that eat them sleep in peaceful apathy. There’s something useful in that phrase, but also something not so wonderful. Let me explain.
The article I was reading suggested that people “indulge” in daydreaming, as if that’s a flippant, pointless pleasure, that people wallow in or abandon themselves to. That may be so, but haven’t we thrown the baby out with the bath water? I agree that daydreaming to the exclusion of turning those dreams into something tangible and shareable is the epitome of self-indulgent pointlessness, however pleasurable it might be. Unfortunately, we’ve tended to go too far the other way, discouraging daydreaming entirely; seeing it as necessarily, inevitably pointless, worthless and wasteful; heaping disdain and opprobrium on anybody that dares to daydream imaginatively.
That can’t be right.
Sadly, any child that shows a tendency to daydream is labelled as unfocussed and lacking attention. In fact, they drug such kids, often. They call it “attention deficit disorder”, sometimes. Sure, we encourage “creative writing” as the furthest, permissible limits of their use of their imaginations, but we relegate it to the margins. We relegate it! That’s right. We put it into a neat little box and push it aside. If children that write creatively exhibit the same imaginative daydreaming during science or maths, they are admonished at worst, or patronised at best, and told to get on with their serious work. Serious work, involving concrete concepts, received facts, processes, procedures, algorithms, methods and incontrovertible connections, associations, inferences and theories.
We, in effect, tell the children that imagination and daydreaming have no place or purpose in so called “serious” subjects. There are whole disciplines where we actively and aggressively discourage speculation, the seeing of imaginative connections, innovative questions and thoughts and the ability to daydream their way into the curiosity of their own enquiring minds. No wonder progress in so many academic disciplines is so slow! It doesn’t surprise me that cures for many diseases and explanations into why mysterious things work the way they do are so rare. We drum the ability to think about these things, in new ways, out of the kids.
When I was a child, prone to daydreaming, I know what I was doing. I can remember it clearly. I was designing mechanisms in my head. Things I could build, once I had worked them out in my mind. I was dreaming of making new sounds with electronic circuits, never before imagined. I was designing musical instruments unlike the ones you could afford to buy. I was exploring a whole universe of new things that existed only in my head, looking for answers to bring back into my real world. I was an imaginaut!
My son explains that he finds it hard to study and revise, when his head is so full of new stories and characters, imaginative settings and narratives about people, places, mechanisms and worlds that reside only in his mind. He’s just like his old dad. I find it tragic to have to tell him to put all of that to one side and go back to the exercises and revision questions. He needs to do those things to get a qualification, of course, such is our educational system, but I can’t help thinking that all that imaginative stuff that just occurs to him, like breathing, is the real key to his humanity and the most valuable contribution he will ultimately be able to make, while on Earth.
Wouldn’t it be better if school, instead of curbing a child’s enthusiasm for daydreaming, embraced those imaginative ideas and taught children tools and techniques for bringing those daydreams to life, so that others could see, feel, touch, hear, taste and smell those ideas made manifest? Shouldn’t we be honouring the unique viewpoints, insights, creative connections and new ways of seeing or storytelling that occur to some kids as second nature, instead of judging them, correcting them and trying to force fit them into the mould of an obedient foot soldier, following orders from authority? Wouldn’t society greatly benefit if those amazing phantasms could be applied to intractable, unsolved problems, instead of insisting that they rely on methods and perspectives that have, so far, singularly failed to produce the answers we seek?
I do not advocate letting entire generations sink into a luxurious, apathetic stupor, intoxicated by their addiction to daydreaming. Not at all. Rather, I think they should be taught to honour and welcome their daydreams, with gratitude, and also learn how to take those fanciful thoughts and do something real with them, whether than means writing a play, making a movie or researching a difficult subject from a fresh direction. Much of the theory of relativity, after all, derived from a series of thought experiments, the result of intense daydreaming. It’s important.
So what do we tell the children? Do we tell them, however subtly, that imagination and daydreaming are a worthless waste of time, or do we instead encourage them to use those flights of fancy as a starting point for doing or thinking about something that nobody has ever done before? Do we use imagination and daydreams to empower enquiry and curiosity, or do we pig-headedly insist that it’s shameful, silly and childish?
What will you tell your children?