I was recently by myself having lunch in Düsseldorf, Germany, on the shores of the Rhine River—sharing a table outside with strangers and eating chopped bratwurst with curry sauce from a food truck while drinking an Altbier. The air was crisp and the sky overcast, but the budding star magnolias on the southern side of the river bend already spoke of warmer days ahead. I heard chatter in German all around me and I understood nothing of what was being said. I couldn’t look at my phone because international roaming data was so slow that it was painful to even try, and I had no book to read or notebook to write on. So I just sat there and ate and listened and observed. I found myself thinking about all the things that make me afraid, embarrassed, and anxious— things that I long for and things that make me feel happy and loved and hopeful. That is to say that I found myself daydreaming, and thinking about dreaming and about daydreaming.
If dreaming, as Freud suggested, is the domain of the subconscious, daydreaming is the domain of the stream of consciousness, of the dreams of vigil. Daydreaming is the domain of the river that flows through our interior life, carrying us through the rapids of old fears and insecurities, through the bends of laughter, to the fords and still waters of love, hope and longing. Daydreaming is the free floating through the tributaries of interiority. It is being friends with oneself.
When 17th century Spanish playwright Calderón de la Barça said that “life is a dream,” he did not mean that life is an unreal machination of some thought experiment; he meant that dreams are the most real because they are our most intimate reality. They constitute our very being and make us who we are, and therefore only in knowing them can we be friends with ourselves and with the world. If we don’t know our dreams—those rivers that flow through our interiority filled with the sediments of fear, anxiety, hope, longing, love, and meaning—we don’t know who we are, and we will inevitably have a broken relationship with the world. A life without the estuary of interiority to irrigate its soil is nothing but a barren desert of isolation. Daydreaming, then, is not an incidental or meaningless activity we do when we are “bored,” but a primordial experience of persons, and a task whose importance can hardly be overstated.
Yet the world seems hell-bent on preventing us from floating in those careless rivers of interiority. This is, of course, not a new problem. In fact, this is what 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal called divertissements—i.e. those distractions that prevent us from being in touch with the most fundamental part of being. Our modern world—a world of alerts, alarms and algorithms, of advertisement, social media, and alternate realities— is designed to compete at all costs for our attention; it is a mad locomotive driving towards the complete annihilation of inwardness. It should be no surprise, then, that although we live in a time and a place where we don’t lack for any basic necessity (probably the only time and place in history where that has been so universally true), our psychological and existential distress seem to be nearing a level of complete collapse. We stand dumbfounded at these realities, pointing at a million potential causes while refusing to acknowledge that friendship with oneself is fundamental for all persons. In other words, while there may be many very real social, cultural, political, and economic causes for these rising levels of despair, no person can be fulfilled as long as they remain alienated from themselves. It is no surprise that a world built on banality and distraction is riddled with violence and anxiety. It couldn’t be any other way.
Daydreaming transforms despair and anxiety, because being friends with oneself is being friends with the world. To float on the rivers of inwardness is not to be in isolation but to be in the fertile community of all those others who surround us with their own inwardness, with their own rapids and still waters, with their own longing for meaning. This is what I daydreamed on the shores of the Rhine, as I watched the river bend behind the horizon on its way to the valleys of Westphalia and the Netherlands and eventually the Northern Sea. We, my friends, are the world and the world is our inwardness. This is why the care of others and the world is the only thing truly worth doing in this life. This is why the world only makes sense in the mutuality of love. But none of this can happen without the fundamental activity of daydreaming, and naturally, a glass of wine is a particularly good companion for this, the most careless and most meaningful activity.
So, this spring, as everything emerges and comes back to life, I wish you happy daydreaming. May you find the time to be bored without any distractions from that which the world regards the least but matters the most. May you find the playful carelessness required to float down our common rivers of inwardness. Because despite the fear and discomfort that we may initially feel as we set sail through the white waters of interiority, there—at the delta of the river of daydreaming—is the warm embrace of friendship with oneself, the horizon of the other, and the wellspring of all meaning.