Escape Through Travel Doesn’t Always Work

Sometimes your circumstances might make you want to run away. And then you do. When you are no longer entangled in an environment that you felt was making you unhappy, just the very act of changing your scenery can be a relief and an opportunity to re-evaluate aspects of your life. It might be just what you need. Novelist Alex Garland makes this point in the backpacker classic The Beach:

Escape through travel works. Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up, problems switched off. Broken armrests took precedence over broken hearts. By the time the plane was airborne I’d forgotten England even existed.

While everyone understands the need to take a holiday from work, not everyone gets the urge to leave everything and everyone behind, and go away for a long time. It can seem like an immature coping mechanism or avoidance strategy. Why can’t people just deal with the challenges of the real world? And in some sense, that opinion holds true. Travel can be an easy but ultimately short-term fix for a deeper problem. Escapism can be good, but not all the time.

In philosopher Alain de Botton’s documentary The Art of Travel (based on his book of the same title), Botton notes how often we want to travel to escape ourselves, but find that we have brought not just our suitcase and our clothes with us, but our mental baggage as well. We hope to leave all of our anxiety, stress and insecurities at home – and maybe some people do, or they become more of a subtle background noise – but often a new location is not, in and of itself, an antidote to these types of issues.

The Roman philosopher Seneca spoke about this phenomenon in Letters from a Stoic:

Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, Lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.

Seneca was of the opinion that travel is not a cure for our discontent. It may be a temporary relief, but the happy, care-free and confident self that you were while travelling may be left behind when you return home. Perhaps this also explains part of why the post-travel blues can be so intense for some people.

When you come home, you are not just ending a way of living, but becoming separated from what you considered to be the best version of yourself. But in a sense, the travel experience does not end when you come home. You have the opportunity to bring back positive characteristics with you. But it can’t be taken as a given. It involves a certain amount of introspection and integration.

If there is some inner work to be done, or especially if you are experiencing a mental health problem, staying put might be more beneficial in the long-term, even if it feels like home is the root cause of your dissatisfaction. Home is where your supportive networks exist, and it’s where professional help is most easily sought.

However, every individual is different. Escape through travel can work if it’s taken as a break from the 9-to-5 grind in a career you don’t particularly want to commit your life to. On the other hand, if you want to take a break from yourself, or expect to change in some incredible way and bring this awesome person back with you, this is probably too idealistic. Who you are is intimately shaped by your surroundings. It might be a shock to find yourself engaging in old, negative habits when you come home, but it’s not that surprising really.

There is also something to be said about ‘staycations’ – exploring your own city or country might not be a mind-blowing experience, and certainly not a culture shock, but this does not devalue the experience.

There is nothing wrong with escapism, but it can be useful to take a step back and think about what (and why) you are escaping, and how to turn escapism into a beneficial experience.

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