To Only Know, and Not Imagine

Here’s today’s most awful story:

…out of 1,000 nursery workers surveyed, 72 percent percent said that fewer children have invisible friends than they did five years ago, the potential cause of which likely won’t come as a shock. Two-thirds of those surveyed placed the blame on the growing prevalence of screens like iPads and cell phones, which kids can now turn to whenever they don’t know what to do with themselves.

“I think that children are not allowed to be ‘bored’ any more,” David Wright, the owner of Paint Pots Nursery in England, told the Daily Mail.“When children have free time to themselves, they find something creative to do with their mind, such as forming an imaginary friend.”

Children are never allowed to have free time to themselves. They can’t be allowed to roam, lest they be abducted within seconds. They can’t come home to an empty house after school for a couple of hours, lest they be bored or in danger of falling or tripping or choking or home invasions or a non-optimized snack.

And by the time they get to college, they had damned well better know exactly what they’re going to study, and exactly what kind of a career they’re aimed at. Anything else would be irresponsible, would have no way to calculate ROI or opportunity cost or any of the other ways to pretend that a human life is nothing more than an arbitrage investment.

I was never, ever bored as a child. I was sad and lonely once in a while, but I used those moments to open up new opportunities, through reading or playing board games or inventing chemical formulae out of crushed dogberries and urine and an old tarnished penny. (I wanted to kill a tree. Don’t ask. Like all childhood fantasies, it both makes no sense and has acres and acres of socio-scientific backstory.)

Every episode of Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies fifty years ago made me a better writer today.

Every hour I spent alone in our basement rec room made me more capable of focusing my attention for long periods of time.

Every afternoon I spent alone wandering the aisles of the big discount store across the freeway made me more able to understand the temperature and fluctuations of popular culture.

Listen. I know I’m old. I know I’m at dire risk of crabby grandpa, even though I never had children. But this strikes me as the contemporary analogue to The Fall. Before, Adam and Eve were new to one another, and the world was new to them. They had to give names to every damn animal they encountered. But once they succumbed to the Tree of Knowledge, they lost their ability to imagine. Were left to lives of repeated pain and degradation, through their endless layers of begats.

The Land of Make Believe, by Jaro Hess, 1930

I grew up with this poster on my bedroom wall: The Land of Make Believe, by the Czech-Michigander Jaroslav Hes (later Jaro Hess), published in 1930 by J&R Enterprises of Grand Rapids, MI. I spent hours and hours inside this map, studying the terrain and the characters (and being both scandalized and thrilled that the mermaids had nipples!!!). The map taught me nothing factually true. It taught me instead that other worlds were possible.

Will we teach our kids that other worlds are possible? Will we teach our college students that they can be people they’d never imagined? Or will we make them all into technicians, to serve us and never become themselves?