The Common Good
July-August 2003

Getting Our Gaze Back

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 2003

Is daydreaming a dose of self-medication in a data-processed world?

My office window faces east. Our unfriendly neighbor planted a peach tree in the tiny green space between her building and ours. My window frames the tree and the bright yellow spikes of winter cabbage gone to flower. Someone has dangled a plastic great horned owl from the telephone wires. I stare out. Two houses down, during the war, a blue and white banner hung from the second-floor porch. It said "Kalamazoo for Peace." Michigan is far away. Swallowtails, cabbage whites, skippers, and orange sulphurs follow scent trails to the tiny patches of flowers blooming furiously in the middle of the city. The window's iron security bars cast vertical shadows across my computer screen in the morning.

I've noticed about myself recently that I stare out the window and daydream when I'm desperate. The unrelenting beam of information aimed at me via the computer screen too often occupies my eyes. My gaze is clouded with data bits. The mind silts up with details, images, pleas for help, advertisements, and thousands of worthy campaigns for social change. "Life shouldn't be this hard," I think.

Eventually, nothing can float freely in the stream of my consciousness; everything is stuck. After some time staring at my mind-mud, I turn to the window. A psychological switch is thrown. I watch butterflies and wonder about color variations on peaches.

"Daydreaming," says artificial intelligence researcher Erik Mueller, "is spontaneously recalling or imagining personal or vicarious experiences in the past or future." He argues that it improves efficiency, assists creativity, and regulates emotions. The odd thing is that Mueller is studying human daydreaming in order to teach computers how to do it. I find this interesting because computers were developed primarily to process information. What flows through my e-mail and the Internet is an explosion of semi-random details from wider and wider sources. The human brain, however, is not made to process data. It works by matching patterns. Our minds create order out of chaos by learning patterns and then using those patterns in unique ways. It's our secret of survival.

Is one reason I look out my window while thinking "life shouldn't be this hard" because the saturation of data forces my brain to work against itself? Is daydreaming a dose of self-medication in a data-processed world?

BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX, a Benedictine monk, wrote in 1149 about the necessity of resting the mind in God. It is this kind of meditation, he says, "which replaces confusion with order, checks the inclination to lose oneself in uncertainty, gathers together that which is dispersed, penetrates into that which is hidden, discovers what is true and distinguishes it from that which merely appears as such."

Meditation and daydreaming are not the same thing. Daydreaming that is not directed toward God can become egoistic fantasy; it can produce a preference for illusions rather than for life. Though they are not the same thing, meditation and daydreaming have corresponding patterns. When I gaze at the little garden outside my window, I remember the ordered beauty God placed in the world. I allow God to re-create me in the divine image. This is what Jesus meant when he said, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow." We are not computers, not machines. We have more in common with flowers than microchips.

By mid-afternoon the view outside my window is deep in shade. Pigeons and doves are settled in alongside the owl. The butterflies are absent—perhaps moved on to warmer micro climes. The dark green leaves are still. A rusty bedspring leans against the fence and trash from the alley dumpster is caught in the fence. I give over my intellect, my tired eyes, and some part of my soul to the cool of the afternoon. I rest.

Isn't this kind of holy daydreaming an essential quality of sabbath? I learn humility from a tree that flowers, fruits, and multiplies whether I sleep or am awake. I am awed by butterflies that can trace the scent of sweetness without extensive computer-generated data and global positioning satellites. I look out my window through the security bars. My mouth waters in anticipation of summer peaches.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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