In Defense of Daydreaming

The one thing on which Google, 3M, and Christianity agree.

I wrote this post as part of a symposium on the Christian imagination over at the John Jay Institute’s publication, The Statesman. Check out the rest of the symposium here. Other pieces include “Why we get myth wrong,” “Saints vs. superheroes,” and “How to waste our imagination.”


Daydreaming is work.

Or, so argue companies like 3M. In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer describes how, “instead of insisting on constant concentration – requiring every employee to focus on his or her work for eight hours a day – 3M encourages people to make time for activities that at first glance might seem unproductive.” This includes lying on a couch under a sunny window, or taking long walks.

Google takes a similar approach. In the New York Times article, “At Google, a Place to Work and Play,”1 James Stewart gapes (almost disbelievingly) at Google’s “Broadway-themed conference rooms with velvet drapes” and “cafes, coffee bars, and open kitchens.”

How are these apparent distractions at 3M and Google conducive to productivity? Such places sound like an adult playground, a Disney World knock-off just short of the gloved mouse. And yet, no one can deny Google’s global web supremacy. CNN reported in February that the company’s market capitalization was $395 billion, surpassing Exxon by $3 billion.2 Meanwhile, 3M has been inventing products for more than seventy-five years, from Scotch tape, to the Post-It note, to the smartphone touchscreen.

The success of these daydream-friendly approaches to business is nothing new. Consider the life of Christ. His first 30 years in silence offer us a startling ratio: ten years of silent work to each year of active ministry. Why? Was Christ “wasting valuable time”? Of course not.

In Christ and Apollo, William F. Lynch describes the proper action of the imagination “as following a narrow, direct path through the finite” (21). Through the powers of the imagination, we encounter the definite realities and limitations around us, in order to gain insight into the infinite. The movement is analogous to a diver who plunges from the side of a pool into the water (the “finite”), breaking through the surface on the other side (insight).

This movement, Lynch argues, is essentially what Christ performed by becoming man:

“God Himself has no need further than His eternal Christic, anointed Word to grasp Himself from all eternity, and certainly, being no better than God, we too need go no further than the earthly, concrete, limited Christ and descend with Him for the grasping of everything.” (26)

In other words, Christ was “grasping” His own creation for decades before He began the work of actively redeeming it. But didn’t He have a world to save? Weren’t people dying in sin at every moment, unaware of the power of His name, in need of salvation? What was He waiting for?

Clearly its Author held the imagination in high esteem. To this day, His life and parables pulse with imagery, particularly when we study them in their historical and cultural contexts. The clarity and depth of His imagery reveals Christ’s attentiveness to all that He made. By “grasping” creation, He was able to speak with authority, as one who knows it after spending years contemplating it.

Google and 3M have enjoyed success partially because they recognize the importance of constructive daydreaming. They understand the importance of stepping away from daily projects and tasks in order to engage their imaginations with games, foods, and community.

By encouraging and stimulating perception, imagination, and daydreaming, these companies stimulate productivity, which in turn changes and improves the world.

As Christians, living in a world where the greatest emphasis is on activity and productivity, we should imitate the Google and 3M model, and, more importantly, the example Christ set for us.

We need to daydream.

What is it you love to do? What studies, places, innovations, and hobbies have intrigued you? Do you make time for them? Do you ever go outside of your circle of friends to meet someone with whom you may have nothing in common, just to listen to their stories, thoughts, and experiences? Do you remain open to others’ interests as well as your own? Are you exercising your imagination?

Practice these things, and afterward, most important of all, make time for daydreaming, for sitting afterwards in a place where you can “do nothing,” allowing new ideas to mingle with the familiar notions.

Then, filled with ideas, go back into your field, art, or ministry, bringing some of them with you.

This practice will mean investing time in people, things, and places we may normally have never encountered. It will mean wrestling with the limitations of each. But Christians best steward the incredible gift of imagination when we actively listen to others, and engage with those beyond our normal circles.

Doing so will lead to richer experiences, deeper thoughts, and greater clarity concerning this incredible, paradoxical thing we call life.

And through Christ, having “grasped” the world around us, I believe we will impact it for the better.

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