February 10th, 2015
By Father Ron Rolheiser
A good part of our lives are taken up with daydreams, though few of us admit that and even fewer of us would own up to the contents of those fantasies. We’re ashamed to admit how much we escape into fantasy and we’re even more ashamed to reveal the content of those fantasies. But, whether we admit it or not, we’re all pathological daydreamers; except this isn’t necessarily a pathology. Our hearts and minds, chronically frustrated by the limits of our lives, naturally seek solace in daydreaming. It’s an almost irresistible temptation. Indeed the more sensitive you are, perhaps the stronger will be the propensity to escape into daydreams. Sensitivity triggers restlessness and restlessness doesn’t easily find quiet inside ordinary life. Hence, the escape into daydreams.
And what about the contents of those daydreams?
We tend to have two kinds of daydreams: The first kind are triggered more by the immediate hurts and temptations within our lives; for example, a lingering hurt or anger has you fantasizing about revenge and you play out various scenes of retaliation over and over again in your mind. Or an emotional or sexual obsession has you fantasying about various kinds of consummation.
The other kind of daydream we escape into is not so much triggered by the hurts and obsessions of the present moment but takes its root in something deeper, something classically expressed by St. Augustine in the opening lines of his Confessions (a hermeneutical key for his life and our own): You have made us for yourself Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Simply put, we are overcharged for our lives, given infinite spirits and infinite appetites and put into this world wherein everything is finite. That’s a formula for chronic dissatisfaction. What’s our escape? Daydreams.
However these second kind of daydreams are somewhat different from the first. They aren’t so much focused on the immediate angers and temptations in our lives but rather are the habitual imaginary lives that we have interiorly fashioned for ourselves, fantasy lives that we play over and over again in our minds the way we might play and replay a favorite movie. But there’s something interesting and important to note here. In these daydreams we are never petty or small, rather we are always noble and grand, the hero or the heroine, generous, big-hearted, immune from faults, drawing perfect respect, and making perfect love. In these daydreams we, in fact, intuit the vision of Isaiah where he foresees a perfect world, the lamb the lion lying down together, the sick being healed, the hungry being fed, all restlessness being brought to calm, and God, himself, drying away every tear. Isaiah too fantasied about perfect consummation. His fantasy was a prophecy. In our earthy fantasies we might not prophesize but we do intuit the kingdom of God.
With that being said, we still need to ask ourselves: How good or bad is it to escape into daydreams?
At one level, daydreams are not just harmless but can be a positive form of relaxation and a way to steady us inside the frustrations of our lives. Sitting back in an easy chair and sinking into a daydream can be little different than sitting back and turning on your favorite piece of music. It can be an escape that takes the edge off of the frustrations within your life.
But there’s a potential downside to this: Since in our daydreams we are always the hero or the heroine and the center of attention and admiration, our daydreams can easily stoke our natural narcissism. Since we are the center of everything in our daydreams we can easily become over-frustrated with a world within which we are not much the center of anything. And there’s more: Etty Hillesum, reflecting on her own experience, suggests another negative consequence from habitually escaping into daydreams. She affirms that because we make ourselves the center of the universe inside our daydreams we often end up not being able to give anything or anybody the simple gaze of admiration. Rather, in her strong words, in our daydreams we take in what we should be admiring and, instead, masturbate with it. For this reason, among others, daydreams help block us from mindfulness, from being in the present moment. When we are all wrapped-up in fantasy it’s hard to see what’s in front of us.
So where should we go with all of this? Given both the good and bad within our daydreams and given our near-incurable propensity to escape into fantasy, we need to be patient with ourselves. Henri Nouwen suggests that the struggle to turn our fantasies into prayer is one of the great congenital struggles within our spiritual lives. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin shares in his journals that when he was young he struggled a lot with fantasy but, as he grew older, he was able more and more to stand in the present moment without the need to escape into daydreams. That’s the task we need to set before ourselves.
Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.
From February 13, 2015 issue of Catholic San Francisco.