If there is one rule that I have learned from the children in my life, it is this: that if children are not given an occupation, they will demonstrate a special capacity to “occupy themselves.” Or, to put it simply, when children have nothing to do, they will find something to do—even if all they can find to do is mischief.
However quietly he may be sitting, a child will never quiet his imagination; he looks at the world around him with fresh eyes and sees in it fantastic and fabulous things. Any adult knows this truth merely from remembering the time as a child he spent in waiting rooms, or playing alone in his backyard, or following his mother around as she ran errands. It is as natural to an adult as to a child to seek to occupy oneself somehow—if only with one’s thoughts. It is merely that a man has learned to hide it better. Waiting in the doctor’s office, a child will ask his mother loudly why the lady on the other side of the room looks like Cruella DeVille. The grown man will not ask this aloud—possibly only because his mother is not there to answer—but he will certainly ask it, and perhaps answer it, in the silence of his mind.
Yet, in our day, moments of simple waiting are nearly obsolete. From waiting in line at the coffee shop to waiting for a red light to change, in an age of instant communication and entertainment we feel the need to communicate or be entertained not only instantly but constantly. With our iPhones and blackberries, we now carry with us everywhere the limitless ability to waste moments of waiting. And that is a death-warrant to our opportunity to contemplate the world about us, and a fatal blow to our imagination.
It was once much less easy to so fill up one’s “waiting” time. In G.K. Chesterton’s essay “What I Found In My Pocket,” this genial giant of a writer found himself on a train without any regular form of amusement or occupation, having neither book nor newspaper nor anything to write on—and not even any advertisements to look at. “Now I deny most energetically,” Chesterton declares in this desperate situation, “that anything is, or can be, uninteresting.” That one rule may be called the grounding principle upon which GKC’s philosophy of natural wonder is based—and, true to form, Chesterton lived it out in this particular situation, simply by exploring the contents of his pockets. Among other things, he discovered a pocket-knife, chalk, and a box of matches. In each case, his imagination runs wild, inspired by the object he is contemplating: in the pocket-knife he sees “the mystery of the thing called iron and of the thing called steel”; the chalk calls to his mind “all the art and all the frescoes of the world.” Free from the distractions of daily duties and usual occupations during his train ride, he saw in what could have been a dull time a richly fertile opportunity for his imagination, for him to contemplate the miraculous and mysterious element in every ordinary thing around him, from wood to tram tickets to coins.
Such a child-like attitude and simplicity which can take an unabashed interest in little things is swiftly disappearing—or at least growing decidedly uncommon. The bored child and the bored man in the waiting room who take an interest in the people and things about them are a dying race. No one in a waiting room sits unoccupied, merely contemplating their surroundings—except the very old and the very young. Nowadays, your average fellow indeed turns to his pockets; but he does not pull out a pocket knife or a piece of chalk. He pulls out a phone and begins texting. Or tweeting. Or checking Facebook. He is occupied; he is entertained; but his imagination is dead.
As Chesterton’s own musings illustrate, an imagination is like the artist in each soul: it cannot flourish except when given time, space, freedom—in short, a blank canvas. If we perpetually fill every free space in our day with some form of entertainment or communication or “networking,” there is no time left to see the beauty and potential of realities right under our noses; no time to imagine, to contemplate; no time left for our own creation.