I’m in a lovely hotel room on the 11th floor facing the Galveston beach. Below I can see Seawall Boulevard and cars passing by with people on their way to whatever awaits them for the day. There are palm trees lining the street and sidewalk, tropical flowers and a pool with a swim-up bar far below; restaurants to the left of me, more hotels to the right, and ultimately the ocean with white waves flashing in the morning sun like a thousand flashbulbs.
Standing here looking out the window, I can hear the faint roar of water coming to shore – a sound that cannot be replicated – and it brings to mind the feel of humid air, the squawk of seagulls, and the warmth of the sun. Of course, I can’t experience any of this; I’m behind glass.
I look down on the few people on the beach or out on the breakers and can imagine the sand that is stuck to their feet and between toes and how, if they are in the shallow surf, the receding water removes sand out from under their feet. I can imagine children excitedly telling their parents to come see what they’ve discovered and the sound of bicycle and skateboard wheels clacking over the joints that separate the sidewalk segments. Standing above all that, I can imagine it.
So how less real is the experience in my mind than if I were physically standing on the beach? If I can imagine it, am I not, in some way, experiencing it? My body is here in the hotel room but my mind is standing in the surf.
Which is most real?
Being in Two Places at Once
Clearly there are times when we are physically in one place but our minds are in another. In fact, this happens to the average person multiple times if not hundreds of times a day. We sometimes refer to this as “daydreaming” which we associate with “fantasy”, but we also project our mental selves into all kinds of less fanciful futures in an attempt to gain insight to how we might react to a particular scenario or make a decision, imagining our future self in a variety of possible consequences.
In addition, another related colloquial phrase is that of being “lost in your thoughts” which is similar to daydreaming but a little more intense or consuming. Some people lost in thought might be in such a state for lengthy periods of time while doing routine activities like driving to work, cooking dinner, or standing in the shower.
Some of these imaginings can be so “real” that the person becomes emotionally affected by it. Perhaps a widow gets lost in the memories they share with their deceased spouse and when they snap out of it, the find they are crying. Or a person who remembers a happy memory of a good time with friends and when they snap out of it, they are in an uplifted mood.
Yet these daydreams or moments of being lost in thought are not what we would call “reality” or that the experience was real. But what makes something real? If you end up crying or happy as a result of being lost in thought, doesn’t that provide a kind physical evidence (tears or endorphins)?
This begs the question – what makes an experience? Let’s go back to the projection of my mental self on the beach.
Memory and Imagination
I did not physically feel the sand, hear the water, or smell the air, but in a way I did. The present is so brief that what you experience becomes almost instantly memory because we are able to reflect on that experience, evaluate it, and assign meaning.
Is imagining myself on the beach so different than actually doing it? Admittedly, I was looking at the beach so this helped aid my imagination which is a different set of circumstances than say sitting in my living room or in a classroom thinking about the beach.
Maybe this daydream/lost in thought phenomena is in a way a type of remembering – not an actual event that happened, but do we really remember events as the actually happened? Of course not; we fill in the small details and gaps with the same tool as we use to daydream – imagination.
So is using the tool of imagination to fill out a memory versus using it to create a fantasy through daydreaming or getting lost in thought make one experience more real than the other?
Well, regardless of where you fall on these questions, I think it’s time to put down the pen and go to the beach…the actual one.
Compliment this post with Existence, Context and a Trip to Portland which addresses identity in context.
Find other posts related to this one by visiting the categories Being and Existence.