[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 9 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Dispelling Work Haze and Vacation Daze.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

I eyed the distance between the two boulders. Standing on a ledge, the sun beat down on me. Above, an idyllic painted sky met the ocean ahead, blending miles. Somewhere, hundreds of feet below, children played in the springs beneath the volcanic rocks. However, up here, I was alone. I had traded the peaceful family excursion below the rocks for the payoff of uncertainty and the thrill of a solo journey above. An hour and a half of scrambling around two miles of rocks had left my shoes tattered and my knees bloody. A wrong step on these baked, scraggly boulders meant a flesh-tearing fall down the narrow cracks to the sea far below. The air that had previously sung so brightly to me of adventure, now remained oblivious to my predicament. My emotions started to unravel toward fear. Afternoon had quickly become early evening, and I could not return the same way I came. The irony was not lost on me that I had further proved John Donne’s point; I had somehow isolated myself by not just being an emotional island but by also getting lost on a literal one. I had no choice but to push forward. However, missing my mark meant severe injury, if not worse. Edging back as far as I dared, I stood paralyzed by indecision.

But this was not reality.

At least, not the present one. Presently, I was not on cliffs in the British Virgin Islands. I was in the red light district of Mumbai, India. The purest blue of the ocean was traded for the vibrantly jarring reddish orange of the earth. The air in the alleyway from the marketplace clashed; the smells becoming an almost visible fog. Despite it being in the middle of the afternoon, brothels were beginning to open their doors, gearing up for the night ahead. Humanity streamed around me, staring but not minding this outsider and his problems. Crows flew above, constantly circling a sky dotted by extravagant and unfinished buildings. The streets, lined with alcoves of make shift house compartments, were littered with glass, rubble, and fecal matter. Oblivious to my surroundings, I stared wordlessly at this little stranger of a girl who had just grabbed my hand and gazed so fearlessly back at me in the midst of the chaos.

When we use vacations for escape, we are basing hope on a transient fantasy and are somehow surprised that when we return home, this hope vanishes.The previous two paragraphs range from a summer blockbuster about teleportation to a short novel about the dangers of hallucinatory drugs. But they are more than just stories. They are personal memories of real events that will always be close to my heart. Whenever we leave our normal environment for a new one, our memories tend to have a powerful hold over us. Why is that the case? Is it because we relish these new memories or are we trying to replace our old ones? I personally sought out a sense of adventure through these trips. I knew that these experiences might change me but could not fathom the full impact they would have on my life.

Why do I—along with so many others—seek adventure on vacation? Thrill seeking often perfectly combined my desire to seek new experiences with breaking free from previous memories that had held sway over me. My desire to minister to people in the brothels did not leave behind the external struggles and internal turmoil that I was facing at home. But at the time, I felt that if I could immerse myself there, I would be able to move past these issues or at least ignore them. Similarly, my vacation to the B.V.I. did not bring rest to the chaos of my heart. Instead, the chaos was exposed even more and continued even when I returned home.

At its stereotypical worst, vacations can conjure images of a culturally unaware tourist, often Western, content with sucking dry the country they are visiting. After having their fill of experiences and pleasure, they leave the location content but their host in worse shape than they found it. We must realize the balance between enjoying a new environment and collaborating with its people without using them solely for our benefit. This is possible, which is why I am not arguing from an anti-vacation standpoint. Vacations are often much-needed times of rest from grueling schedules and relentless demands. After creating the entire universe, God set the precedent of resting, and we should follow this balance of work and rest in our own lives. However, I do believe all of us can potentially fall for the lie of “out of sight, out of mind” and use our vacations as a form of escapism rather than a time to recharge and grow closer to God. It is in these moments we run the danger of transforming into the mosquito version of a tourist rather than a welcome traveler.

The idea of escapism has been with us since the beginning of days, but it became rampant in the United States during the Great Depression. Multiple forms of media from magazines to film were created to divert attention from daily hardship. However, the inundation of these uplifting images presented not the hope of a promising future, but rather, the falsehood of an alternate reality. The cultural seeds of escapism planted during the Great Depression still grow today through several outlets such as film, literature, technology, or travel. When vacations as escape have become the norm, we attempt to mutate our desire for adventure or rest into fulfilling pleasure or finding temporary relief.

While escapism can be useful fantasy (as depicted in the back-and-forth struggle between good and evil in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series), conflict is still necessary even in these fictional stories. This is how we can tie the stories into our own daily lives. The story gives us conflict, but there is hope, and then there is change, and we want the same for ourselves. When we use vacations for escape, we are basing hope on a transient fantasy and are somehow surprised that when we return home, this hope vanishes. Instead, our vacations should be a momentary reminder of a future with God where we enjoy His presence continuously. Escapism leads us to devalue the sacrifice of Jesus and the promise of eternity, especially when we try to escape from our troubles and believe that a vacation can bring us lasting rest.

In the past couple of years, there have been several songs from various artists and genres tied to this idea of escapism. Three in particular are of interest here, all titled “Don’t Look Down,” stemming from a phrase of hope. This phrase is often shouted to people hanging off building ledges or great heights to get their focus and their eyes upward. However, in all three songs, the phrase refers to divergent ideas and supports the idea of escapism as a viable, alternate reality.

Martin Garrix’s lyric video for his song begins with a worker stuck in a dead-end job with a grating boss. The individual proceeds to quit his job flamboyantly and continues his day stress free, performing several enjoyable activities in various places. Despite quitting, the video presents his new lease on life as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. This idea is driven even further because of how it is recorded; it was shot with a GoPro, making the worker’s life unfold like we are seeing it through our own eyes.

Kanye West’s take on this phrase tells the story of a woman who is on the cusp of leaving a relationship. Kanye argues that her current situation is leading her to destruction and even goes as far as comparing her escape and new life to the rebirth of a phoenix. The chorus urges the listener to not look down at the impossible view but to fly away as rapidly as possible. Near the end, the song mutates from its original sound through autotune to show the struggle of escaping one’s constraints.

The most abstract version of this phrase is from the band One Republic. An extremely short closing song to their album Native, it has an expansive instrumental replete with a chorus of voices. The song’s four lines beg the listener not only to not look down but also delivers a cryptic message: “I can hear you preaching, say don’t leave me fall.” While the lyrics may not seem to amount to a greater meaning, the music creates a sonically uplifting feeling. Considering this song’s place in the album lineup—it follows another song about the lead singer’s grandfather as a preacher—it is possible to interpret this as the singer recalling his spiritual background while moving past his present experiences.

Individually, each song may not seem that it is espousing escapism as a worldview. However, taken together, all three songs focus on this idea of escaping something or someone, whether it be our work, our relationships, or even our own past. In these songs, the phrase “Don’t Look Down” has been reinterpreted from a life or death situation and placed as a reliable alternative in how we address our everyday obstacles. Some situations we need to escape, such as bad relationships or destructive situations. But in each of these songs, escapism is shown as deliverance to sure joy in a new life. I’ve not found escapism to work that neatly in my own life, which is why escapism can be more harmful than helpful.

Songs that promote escapism as a solution feed us something we want. Just like the vacation promos developed during the Great Depression fed the people something they wanted. The idea of escape is appealing because we want to get away from circumstantial pain. But what it doesn’t tell us is that even if we get away from less-than-fulfilling situations—a boring job, an embarrassing past, a loveless relationship—we cannot get away from ourselves. We cannot escape our own shortcomings. The truth is, we’re so afraid to look down and fully examine our sin, struggles, and fears that we want to move onward and upward as quickly as possible.

Whether it was taking literal leaps of faith on top of cliffs or addressing my desire to avoid vulnerability in my life, I grabbed onto the advice espoused by these songs. Both of my travel experiences were tied to my desire to escape present circumstances. I wanted to escape the present through exotic vacations because I didn’t want to face the internal struggles I was having. Like Jonah, I had to learn a change of environment does not mean a change of heart. My struggles with vulnerability and trust issues with God did not disappear just because I went to a new place. Instead, they began to accumulate and bleed into every area of my life. The best news is that when God chases after us in love, there’s nowhere to escape. Even on vacation. And sometimes vacation is the best time to stop and take a look at yourself—you see things in a new way when you are someplace different.

The next time you take a vacation, whether it is for rest or for adventure, don’t be afraid to look down. Know that examining yourself in this period provides you not only with a better understanding of yourself, but also with a better understanding of Jesus and the work He is doing in you as you move forward to spend an eternity with Him, where hope is finally reality.

Image: Flickr by Laurel F