53. Getting away from it all

There are so many ways of “getting away from it all” — be it spiritual, physical, artistic, or even chemical, that considering these individually could easily turn into a philosophical treatise, or even a scholarly distraction. Only rarely are we aware that this desire may be the start of a wordless groping for a new beginning, new meanings, fresh values and the possibility of a more authentic existence. How far we have come from those Navaho tribesmen who still chant and dance:

In the house of life I wander
On the pollen path
With a god of cloud I wander
To a holy place
With a god ahead I wander
And a god behind
In the house of life that I wander1

At different stages, our modern way of life can suddenly feel like one long to-do list. It can hit us shopping in a mall, or standing in a crowded commuter train, or ferrying the children to yet another sports event. When overwhelmed by social responsibilities or work, the attraction of escape may take over. We don’t want to answer a conference call or attend another Parent-Teacher meeting. Our fatigue in overworked corporate London might lead us to dream about lying on a South Pacific beach under coconut palms or driving far away into the desert putting mile after mile between us and everyone else.

It seems ironic that the desire of the millions of those seeking to fly away from it all often end up herd-like, huddled together on a beach. When in my teens — not yet ready to accept that human beings are social animals — I wondered why Americans heading to the beach usually settled in a cluster of encamped people. Later I discovered that this was equally true in the UK, France and Spain. Ultimately the important thing for those escaping from their habitual environments was to be close to the presence (not necessarily the company) of other human beings.

I write with a certain detachment as one who has consistently strayed from the pack. I do believe that those who follow the crowd are swiftly lost in it. My mobile is usually on “off.” I am not on Facebook, avoid sport stadiums, loathe long queues and am distressed by the pollution of street noises. I do enjoy being away from it all. I do this in the calm of my garden, or just listening to music in the kitchen and reading a book on the couch. All of these can recharge my batteries in relative solitude.

The treasured teacher and author Joseph Campbell declared that having a “sacred place” was “an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know what anybody owes you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.”2

While some of us may be seeking to strike out on a new and spiritual way, or a solitary visionary journey, generally our species seem to feel more at ease in social gatherings. We can observe this at music festivals, as well as popular bars, crowded restaurants (as opposed to empty ones) fulfilling the demands of our genetically driven social outlooks. There are, of course many exceptions: those who are lonely seldom feel the urge to “get away from it all.” They want to mix. One might think that those at work in Silicon Valley would feel comfortable in taking time off when they pleased. On the contrary, they lead 24/7 lifestyles in which the very thought of flying off to the Caribbean would be more stressful than working in the office.

Many workers and executives in the United States don’t even take the vacations to which they are entitled. As it is, they take less than half the vacation days of their European counterparts and when they do go away they most often take mobiles and laptops with them. Isn’t part of this reluctance to take time off a hangover from the Puritan culture in which the only excuse for a break from work was the weekly observance of the Sabbath?

The idea of getting away on vacations was a 19th Century innovation. In the United Kingdom, “vacation” referred for centuries specifically to the lengthy summer breaks taken by the law courts and the universities. The idea of traveling for relaxation or fun was exercised only by the very rich and was sometimes referred to as “going on holiday.” The word vacation was born when the industrial and banking scions of New York built fabulous “cottages” in the Berkshires and Adirondacks and would then “vacate” their city homes for their summer retreats. In due course “vacations” replaced the British term “holidays” (formerly Holy days) which simply described absence from work. Today the words are used interchangeably in much of the English speaking world.

Retirement may be like a “vacation” to those who eagerly anticipate its freedom and a “sentence” to those who fear its confinement. It is not hard to see why those who regard it with fear want to “get away” from it through travels. One of the consequences of retirement can be social isolation — particularly for those who are single or living alone. The experience of being without the structure and human contacts of a job can prove seriously demoralizing.3

The current revolution in communication technology with its mobiles, instant messaging, presence tracking, the Internet, etc. have, on the one hand made working from home feasible, but on the other have begun to alter our approaches to “getting away from it all” and vacationing. Even when going on holidays we may remain plugged in to communication networks.

New efforts at clean breaks may not be so clean: Technology critic Evgeny Morozov, for example, places his phone and router in a safe with a timer lock when he needs to be free of outside communications.4 Techno isolation for those who can only leave emails behind when they go “off the grid” or who feel “out of it” when deprived of their iPhones, GPS, smartphones and mobiles have to adjust their dependency. These devices are all to be abandoned when taking a walk in the woods, a swim in the ocean, or a vacation.*

If you’re really looking to unplug then the connection you have to sever isn’t electronic, it is mental. We are living in a remarkable era when it will be increasingly difficult to be cut off, so it may become important to learn how to live with persistent connections. This ultimately means that instead of focusing on taking temporary breaks from technology we shall have to discipline our minds to accommodate to it most of our waking hours.5

For those who do not dream of flying away to an isolated Pacific island, the more immediate possibility of floating with instant effect into the realm of music is a far easier escape. A joint, cocaine or even medications can fulfill the need to remove oneself to what Thomas Gray described three centuries ago as “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.”6 What all of us must begin to recognize is that we do have the potential to “get away from it all” within ourselves, in sum to explore the muse within.


 

1Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, (1986) p. 64

2Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (1988)

3Irene S. Levine, “Five Reasons Retirees Need Vacations,” Next Avenue, April 23, 2014

4Julie J. Exline, Light and Shadow, ( 2013)

5Alice Fishburn, “How not to get away from it all,” FT Magazine, August 16, 2014, p. 7

6Thomas Gray, Elegy in a Country Churchyard, 1750

*Not being in constant touch with friends, bosses, mentors, family and social events may soon become taboo for coming generations.

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