A Necessary Escape

Is escapism bad? Does it mean you are avoiding your responsibilities? Does it make you a lesser person? In these days of dire news – angry politics, category 5+ hurricanes, floods, runaway forest fires – are you scared to admit you want to tune out and take a break? Of course not. Ignoring the news entirely is not a good thing, but that’s not what we’re saying here.

But does the same thing hold true with bigger things, like your job or career? I think you know where I’m headed with this (if only judging from the title of this post!), but bear with me before you pass judgement.  An example. I used to have a job that was high stress – working long hours in a dysfunctional and adversarial environment. The yelling and in-fighting was epic. Situations like these make it difficult to keep a sense of humor to say the least. Your options are to either quit and find a new job, or find a way to make it work until you can move on. Sometimes the work itself is worth putting up with the stress, other times the circumstances may require us to stay (hello healthcare). The outcome is the same – you can’t just walk away. And many of us face this as an on-going, un-ending barrage of time passing.

precious vs base metal

We aren’t built to sustain such an incessant assault on the psyche, people need time to recover. Aside from its unpleasantness, what’s worse is that there’s only so much resilience in each of us, and when that’s used up, things can go very, very wrong. So what’s a person to do when you’re stuck in an un-ideal situation? Those who manage it well have found ways to cope – usually an outlet like writing or improv, or an escape like rock climbing or cycling.

Me? I’m escapist. I know this about myself. Don’t get me wrong, I was that person working 16 hour days for 7 months straight. I don’t mean checking out on the job. I’m talking about making time to recover. I tried kick boxing, weights, spinning and absorbed more than my share of alcohol. It wasn’t enough.

So I escaped and took dive trips. Anywhere that seemed exotic and far away. First north Egypt, then the deep unexplored (at the time) south, camping in the desert. On to the Maldives. Down the coast of Africa, then diving with tigers, oceanic blacktips and raggies in South Africa. When the exotic became normal, I sought more remote, exciting and rewarding destinations.

precious vs base metal

And it worked. I bided my time till the next trip. I was hooked, obsessed even. Work transformed from toxic wasteland to mere drudgery that enabled diving with sharks and manta rays. It funded the essential gear and training required to make big trips like Cocos/Malpelo (Costa Rica and Colombia) and Los Revillagigedos (Mexico). I wasn’t alone – adventurers, and corporate refugees like me populated these trips, each pining for the next fix of blue.

precious vs base metal

And back in my office, faced with aggression and self-serving agendas, I would turn to thinking about the blue. The feeling of opening your fists, letting those angry shards float away as you descend into watery calm. The sense of letting the sea grip your attention in a wordless vise. The essential presence of mind you bring to deal with wildlife and currents and hunting sharks – that wonderful all-encompassing focus.

For me, this particular job was something I felt strongly about doing. There was a greater purpose that I was working toward that held me back from leaving the melodrama. But the backstabbing and shouting was eroding my ability to do the job well. Having an escape gave me a different lens to see through. And now that I have left, what did I take away from it all? First, deep gratitude for having had a national-level voice in something that mattered. Second, a sense of humility in witnessing the goodness of people at the charities i interacted with. Third, a lasting joy that I am no longer there (still, years later!) and finally, a thankfulness for the buoyancy of the sea.

Of course, this is not generalizable to everyone’s situation, and its clearly not always the answer. I suspect it only really works if your chosen outlet or escape is healing in some way – like being outdoors, creating/building/making or yoga/meditation. But was it worth it to me, working through all the difficulties, anger and frustrations? I have to say yes. Escaping to a different world every now and again enabled a much-needed perspective, and in return I gained amazing experiences and lessons I otherwise would have missed. For me, and others, escape was not about running away, shirking duties, or ignoring responsibilities. Used effectively, escape can help you muddle through some truly awful times, return some resilience, and open your mind to learn useful, if difficult, lessons. It can fill a void carved out by unhappiness, and can, in some situations, make you whole again. And when you are once again whole, then you can go back to taking on the world.

Oceanic Blacktips in South Africa

Hammerheads at Cocos Island

Tiger at Tiger Beach, Bahamas

Tiger at Kwazulu Natal, South Africa