Most, if not all of us, strive to escape from reality.
We do this quite regularly.
Sometimes, we feel that reality is too bright, too clear, too crisp.
Reality is the bright day that assaults you when you step outside after recovering from a hangover in a dark bedroom.
Reality is unpredictable.
It’s abrasive yet smooth and intangible. It’s real-time and fluid yet stagnant. It’s an experience that’s raw yet refined produced out of some deliberate design to slap you in the face and kick you when you’re down, then lift you up with incredible experiences at other times.
Reality is what is. No delusions, no misconceptions, no bells and whistles, just raw experience. So, what are we all running from? Why do we want to escape reality?
Most of the time we want to escape the unpredictable pain our reality brings whether emotional, physical, mental or spiritual. We often find that our present situation assaults us with pain and trauma and therefore, of course, we want to escape it… makes sense, right?
There are many ways we escape reality. We indulge in TV soap operas, video games, or (ironically) reality TV. Whereas others use drugs or alcohol to alter their mental states and detach themselves.
Sometimes, escapism is as simple as imagination; that is, imagining a brighter future (day dreaming), or imagining a dark future of possible negative consequences (anxiety) as we play out our own mental movies. Others enjoy entertainment such as gambling, spending time in online casinos while others get lost in novels.
While these escape avenues are diverse and range from what society would consider ‘healthy’ to ‘unhealthy’… they’re all forms of escapism.
So, why is escapism so taboo?
Given its common place in our human psyche, it’s unusual that escapism is always defined as ‘avoidance’ rather than ‘coping’, ‘adapting’. It’s never about simply enjoying the thought of an alternate reality or enjoying some entertainment while you wind down… Instead, there’s an inherent guilt we often feel when we find ourselves drifting from day-to-day reality.
Our society is full of TV shows and movies where the little man overcomes adversity or trauma and escapes his dreadful reality. In these situations, we cheer for the hero and boo the societal protagonist. So, then why, when it comes to real life, escapism is suddenly deemed as ‘running away’ or ‘not facing your problems?’
If this is the case then, where is the line between imagination, reflection, and entertainment compared to addiction, running away from your problems and the true inability to cope with life? It seems that, in this sense, ‘escapism’ it too broad a term to apply and a reckless word to use given its taboo and negative connotations.
Surely everything we’ve mentioned above can’t all be deemed as avoidance?
Don’t get me wrong, of course, there are people who live predominantly in their own minds or fall into addiction which pull them away from their worldly responsibilities and this is a dangerous spiral.
These situations of addiction are where escapism fits… but, what about most us who enjoy a healthy dose of escapism to enhance imagination and as a legitimate coping mechanism when times are tough? People who reflect back on fond memories, or others who enjoy a bit of entertainment to wind-down. Do they need a ‘reality check’?
Let me give you an example… I’ve been witnessing this since I was a young child… I think back to my late great-grandmother who ended her days mostly lying alone in her bedroom. Thinking back to her, I remember the scene vividly:
My great-grandmother lies in a large bed. Out her window is a view over Sydney Harbour kept out by blue paisley curtains, drawn cautiously. Leonard Cohen plays from a small stereo beside her bed. His sultry, dulcet tones swirl through stale air, blending with the smell of bitter crushed vitamins and fresh newspapers strewn across the foot of the bed.
She unwraps a Valium from a crumpled tissue, placing it in her mouth allowing it to dissolve into a paste before washing it down with a swig of Chivas Regal whisky kept hidden in dark mustiness under her bed. Cohen takes her away from this small concrete room. She ascends his minor key melodies and drifts to another place where she swims in old memories.
She goes to a place in time where she travelled the world on cruise ships, shopping local Asian markets for antiques that now fill the house. A time before she lay here alone, waiting. She replays memories of dinner at the captain’s table. An evening of swaying and rocking, of red wine, fine dresses, crisp uniforms, and conversation. She manages a smile recalling that night as she looks down at her denture-friendly mash potato and stew.
Is that avoidance? Is it escapism? Or, is it an old, dying woman reliving the best moments of her life rather than focusing on the reality of her frail body lying there alone in bed waiting to die?
The world is obsessed with the concept of mindfulness at present. I too, love the subject and often try to practice just being present and ‘in the moment’ myself.
Yet, where does mindfulness fit in here? Where does being present in the moment leave us in terms of imagination, re-living beautiful memories, or dabbling in some healthy indulgence? Does mindfulness assert that we’re all addicted to escapism and anything except for being here in the present moment is avoidance?
The reality is that if we didn’t escape reality then art would be dead, memories lost, and the importance of being able to dream nullified.
For thousands of years, humans have engaged in ‘reality escaping’ activities from storytelling, tribal hazing, theatre, gambling and many other forms. It seems that there’s something innate within the human psyche that craves a detachment from reality as a rite of passage. So there’s something deep that’s been driving this since our frontal lobes evolved and gave us the ability to simulate situations that don’t exist.
Perhaps, our reality isn’t real at all and escapism is evolving as our way of exploring alternate realities that exist beyond our limited senses?
Quantum physics is teaching us that reality is just a construct and nothing really exists in the form we perceive it anyway so, maybe subconsciously, we’re not all running away, but running toward something. Something more… something that we sense exists beyond our basic ‘reality’ we see and feel every day?
Whatever your stance on escapism, my opinion is, like everything, nothing is a bad thing in moderation.
Without daydreaming, re-living old memories, or even watching shitty TV we would all be less evolved, operating like animals on raw instinct without reflection. My thoughts are that reflection and contemplation are perhaps the most important traits we possess as human beings.
So next time you find yourself ‘escaping’ your ‘reality’, don’t be so hard on yourself. Enjoy the journey and let your soul travel and live a little!