Sunday, November 30, 2008

Escape Artist

These last couple days I've found myself pondering the idea of "escape". I've been thinking of the various ways in which I use the term "escape" and how I apply it to my life.

An escape is a break from the usual routine. Often the word is used with travel, vacation or adventure. It therefore connotes something outside the boundaries of daily existence. We escape from life's duties, life's routines; we break from the mundane world to take a vacation.

And yet have you noticed how many aspects of our culture are masquerading as escapes? The shadow side to a hyper-capitalist culture with a Protestant work-ethic is a profusion of escapes. Our escapist culture seeks solace in virtual worlds, food and drug addictions and sexual fantasies. I am a product of this culture and in many ways a poster child for it.

An escape doesn't have to be mindless. I consider my books an escape, my writing an escape. Perhaps there are healthy escapes and unhealthy ones, but they all seem to follow the same logic: I wish to be somewhere else right now, take me there.

It's true that I fear boredom and listlessness and thrive on work and productivity. It's true that I'm frequently restless and impatient with the slightest things, such as making a meal or preparing the coffee in the morning.

The churn of daily stuff--jobs and activities that consume me--begins to feel like an escape in itself. I ignore myself, how I feel, and my surroundings, the weather outside, the air. My mind is focused on one thing, sadly; what I have to do. Beyond this, I am aware of how time is passing. Recall Charles Van Doren's marvelous essay, "If We Loved Time,":

The fear of time -- of time lost, of time wasted -- is a mortal disease. It shortens a life to an instant -- this instant -- which will be followed by other instants that are equally fleeting. There can be no joy in moments that are carefully measured and doled out.

This creates a perpetually unsettled feeling inside of me. Always under the assault of fear and haste, my first impulse is to seek out an escape. I've put myself into a prison and now I'm craving release.

I retreat to Borders where I can grab a book off the shelves and buy a tall Vanilla latte. This atmosphere immediately calms me down while at the same time I'm aware that it too is not static. I will finish my latte, read a couple pages and have to return home where I will give myself another job to do. Even my moments of rest begin to feel rushed. But that's not the ironic part of this "mortal disease". I'll get to the irony in a minute.

I also escape into fattening, easy-to-find or easy-to-make meals. My girlfriend and I go out to Chipotle or Thai food instead of cooking at home. Instant gratification is a first cousin of escapism.

I escape into the dizzying vortex of consumerism. There is always some item, some product, some material thing bobbing on the horizon of my ever-expanding sea of desire. Recently I bought a new Mac computer. Shame on me! One week later I wanted to buy a video game to go with it. I haven't played video games in fifteen years. But the thrill of my usual escapes seems to fade with time. I'm constantly on the look out for fresh, new escapes, more immediate and easier to obtain. I seek to colonize new worlds (of pleasure).

My girlfriend and I watch the Daily Show almost every night. Another escape; nothing wrong in itself; but compared to the vast amounts of escapes we partake in, our lives seem to be strung together by numberless incidences of the same thing. I was getting bored with watching the same show with her every night so I suggested video games. We had played a car-racing game in a movie theater once and had a ball together, so when I purchased the computer I thought it might be fun to try something new.

The new Mac computer provided an enormous escape. Twenty-four inch LCD screen, superb graphics, lots of cool software, crystal-clear photos and video, you name it. And then with the Internet, I was so buried in possible escapes that purchasing a video game on top of it seemed on the verge of profligacy.

When I finally got the video game, it was more like an escape from my escape. I'd waited two weeks to receive an extra controller for the car-racing game. When the controller arrived I was ready to play.

That night my girlfriend and I sat in front of the computer, helplessly trying to figure out how to make the game two-player mode. Nothing on the menu of options (or the back of the box) suggested this was possible. We spent an hour clicking buttons until I realized that the game only allowed one person to play at a time.

Computers are solo vehicles. I forgot that part.

But when I played the video game myself, I wondered why I had bought it in the first place. I don't even enjoy video games. I'm a writer, an intellectual. Video games are anti-intellectual, anti-creative. How far I had drifted from my original desires!

Escapes can become addictive as well. My addiction to the Internet is unprecedented. I check my email on average eight times a day. I check my six blogs three or four times a day. I loiter in cyberspace, I wander, I get lost on purpose.

Not that there's anything wrong with wasting time. But I'm so driven to accomplish things that in an ironic reversal I find myself escaping more and more into a cloud of petty aggravation. What I'm saying is after a certain point, the escape blurs. You're no longer moving from routine to escape, from normal life to fantasy, from mundane to dream. Soon the routine becomes the escape and vice versa.

That's what happened to me. With all my escapes, I trapped myself in the very thing I was trying to break free from.

Just as a prison is mental, so is an escape. The two can easily switch on you when you're not paying attention. The desire for escape intensifies the prison.

I guess this leaves me with the hope that I can distinguish things from now on. My escape is supposed to be fun. My work might not always be. More importantly, I would like to return to those original escapes that once gave me a sense of fulfillment. Reading and writing are escapes that don't dull my mind. Reading and writing make me sharper. They are difficult pleasures that also happen to be magnificent escapes.

Or perhaps I don't need an escape at all. Maybe I just need to look around and check into reality once in a while--rather than longing for someplace else.

Stumble It!


NathanKP said...

Very interesting post. I truly appreciate your sentiments, wish I had that Mac! :)

Consumerism and Escapism are becoming facts of life, its just a matter of keeping them under control. As you said, there is nothing wrong with escape provided you do it in the right way, perhaps by writing.

There is nothing wrong with buying things provided that you don't get out of control.

Life is all about balancing the internal and the external and all the forces around us.

NathanKP - Imagination Manifesto

Lethe said...

Balance indeed! And sometimes I seem to hang on the perfect balance, other times I'm slip sliding away . . . If it was only a matter of control, but it's not--I'm forgetful, I lose balance before I'm even aware of things. Not that I don't want to take responsibility, it's just that balance, I've found, is a lot easier said than done.

tashabud said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I can relate to most of the topics you talked about.

I hate it that I'm chatting more to people online than with my flesh friends. I agree with Nathan that there has to be a balance, but as you said, "is a lot easier said than done."

Don't feel bad about dining out. We do that quite a bit ourselves. I must confess something I'm not proud of about myself. I like going to the casinos to play the slot machines as an escape. It's been six months since the last time that I'm getting antsy to go again. I guess you can say I'm addicted. It's a bad vice, I know.


cybershade said...

There is so little exceptions from the escapism model of being. I have a hard time finding even one thing that don't count for escape.

We escape with everything we do, experience and feel. So why bother to think in negative way about it? Because you see something wrong in it or because you want to see something wrong in it. Maybe "escape" is just another word for reality and life.

Life is complex! Enjoy what you do and you will experience it in full power! Even if you have to escape sometimes - that's just part of the game :)

Lethe said...

Thank you for your wise comments cybershade. This attitude is one of allowing rather than negating or repressing, which I think is most helpful. There is nothing wrong with escape, like you say, and so much of life constitutes for an escape. All of this is true, and yet we can easily lose touch with those things that are not escape--such as being with loved ones, really being with them, or being with ourselves, instead of running from ourselves. Thanks again for contributing to the discussion.

Jeremy said...

A huge topic you've tapped into!! "Escape" is such a subjective word. One person's escape is another's reality. For many of us, the work we do for our daily crust is an escape from ourselves.

So the question becomes merely what we escape into. If we escape into work and being busty busy busy, this is looked upon with approval. But if we escape into our imagination or dreams, then this is a bad thing.

However many societies which we call "primitve" take the things of the mind, like dreams, seriously. So a denizen of such a society who likes to sit and dream, or sleep and dream, will bask in more approval in that society than in ours.

Ernst Becker's book "The Denial of Death" postulated that everything we do is to distract ourselves from dwelling on the reality of our deaths. Thus most of us can't sit still in silence and do nothing.

Lethe said...

Thank you for you extensive and thoughtful comment Jeremy. I've reader Becker's book (twice) and I agree with his central thesis, although he seems to reduce everything in life to our fear of death, our avoidance of it, which I disagree with. We want to move away from death, separation, loss, and toward love, connection, amnesty (subjects he doesn't cover). But anyways I took upon investigating the concept of "escape" because it does permeate our society in interesting and contradictory ways. Thank you for your additional and illuminating thoughts on this topic.

Ace Starry said...

First, I must say that I had no idea that anyone else ever read Becker's least anyone in their right mind. Bravo. Thank you, Chris, for sharing these thoughts on "escapology" with me. I enjoyed your smooth writing style, and easy flow. I've written an ample amount about escapism myself and my thoughts on the subject would practically fill a novel. Oh that's right, they did.
All things in life have the potential to become a strait jacket, the supposed "good" things, as well as those we perceive as "bad". Even the pursuit of "balance" can become the handcuffs which prevent us from living a full and meaningful life. Enjoy the time you spend outside the boundaries and realize that the boundaries are as meaningless as the previous two sentences without the concentration and consideration of a reader.

-- Ace Starry

Lethe said...

If anyone has something to say on this topic, it's you Ace. You've contemplated it many times, I'm sure. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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