You might have been expecting Part 2 of the series on the Shadowy Side of Smartphones. As I’ve been writing it this past two weeks, I discovered there’s an enormous amount to be said, and I’m not sure a series of blog posts can do it justice. Maybe it’s a book I need to write? (email me or leave a comment if you think so). So I’m putting that material on hold, and offer this for your consideration instead…
Can a vacation save your life?
I realize this seems dramatic. If by your “life” you mean: a heart that’s beating, lungs that are breathing, and a brain that’s functioning at a certain level, I suppose it’s unlikely. But there’s a living that goes beyond just biological feasibility isn’t there? Our lives are much more than just surviving to eat, breath, sleep, and locomote.
Follow me down this rabbit hole for a minute…
Last Tuesday was another installment of a monthly ritual at our house. My wife and daughter moved “Sunset,” her pet fish from his usual tank into a much smaller container (a fish cottage?) while they cleaned the accumulated array of fish tank accoutrements and changed the water.
It reminded me of how a vacation can be a little bit like being taken out of our “tanks.” We go to a different place, somewhere new perhaps, and live a bit of time outside of our familiarity. We may experience a little disorientation in the new location.
Where exactly do you get children’s Tylenol at 2 am when miles away from civilization?
Where is a clean bathroom located?
Or maybe even, how do you order those tacos without hot sauce in a foreign language?
Sunset (the fish if you recall) swims with great gusto and exploratory zeal when he’s returned to his home tank. It all seems new to him again, perhaps because of his short Betta-fish memory. Have you ever noticed that when humans come back from a vacation, sometimes the familiar things seem different – bigger, smaller, less appealing, more comfortable (if its a bed)? And even if all the plastic sea plants are the same and put back in the same location, sometimes being away causes us to view our home environments differently, and see things we didn’t notice.
Speaking of fish, it’s been said that if you want to know what water is like, you shouldn’t ask one. Because of course they live in it, and by virtue of immersion and familiarity they are poor observers of the things that surround them. I doubt this is limited to fish.
After stepping off a plane a few months ago, returning from a mostly rural setting in a foreign country I had a bit of that experience that travelers sometimes refer to as “reverse culture shock.” Everything was the same, but it looked and felt different.
I went into a grocery store and was overwhelmed by the abundance of imported and prepared foods. How does one choose between seventeen types of yogurt? On my way out of the store, I had difficulty finding my car because the parking lot was so enormous. As far as my eyes could see in either direction were stores, restaurants, and places to be entertained. Contrasted with the relatively tiny markets on dirt roads that I had left just a few hours prior, I clearly noticed this; my home environment is designed to immerse me in a lifestyle of consumption.
While this array of choice might seem like a good thing (anyone who has seen the cereal section of my pantry will know how much I cherish it), having been recently away from it, I was more attentive to its capacity for seduction. As I wandered through the aisles of parked cars, I wondered, “How much of my time is spent in the acquisition of…stuff”? Does my obsessive research about which brand of shampoo to buy, or hotel to stay at, (or anything for that matter) feed into a more significant pattern of preoccupation with getting and consuming? How much time do I spend using the internet to plan my purchases, as if the choice between products A and B will make a significant difference in my life? Only when I spent some weeks removed from the fetish-inducing Amazon.com by going to a town with a single small store (ironically located on the edge of an actual rainforest) was I awakened to how much time I spend thinking about and pursuing consumables.
I had to consider this; is the relentless pursuit of the best apple fritter something I want to spend my life on? Is the good life about what I’m getting next if it takes me away from what I can give to other people?
Some may nod their heads at this realization about how many of us are caught up in the obsessive acquiring of things. Some may feel a twang of self-righteousness, having been liberated from their bondage to stuff and now being more concerned with experiences. But the pursuit of enjoyable and memorable experiences can become just a different form of obsessive acquisition. Either of them- things or experiences – can rot our souls if pursuing them is feeding chronic dissatisfaction and the unending need for more. “Sure you took the kids zip lining, but have you swum with dolphins yet”? It’s easy to get stuck on the hedonic treadmill – secretly hoping and telling ourselves that the next thing will finally satisfy us.
But can this really “save our lives,” or was I just creating a click-bait title?
If our everyday decisions and choices are dominated by the obsessive pursuit of things that distract us from paying attention, or creating, or loving, or serving others – then yes, I would say we have lives that need to be saved.
And I’m not suggesting that it’s merely finding a white sandy beach or a mountain-top vista; though those can definitely help. The claim I’m making is that we humans need to be removed from our surroundings from time to time to see them for what they actually are. Traveling is a spiritual practice because coming home can give us the eyes to see things that familiarity has blinded us to.
It’s that kind of mental and spiritual blindness that leads many of us to choose lives preoccupied with chasing the wind. What seems so vitally important to us is so often a product of the immersion itself, and we can rarely notice this until we’re at least temporarily transplanted.
Maybe you’re a little farther down the road than I am. Perhaps you had already figured all this out years ago. But just maybe there’s some other epiphany that’s waiting for you to be had after going on vacation. Sometimes a trip away is not just about taking a break. We tend to think of going away to have our “tanks” refilled, or our batteries “recharged,” because we’re depleted. I’m certainly a supporter of this kind of travel. But I’m suggesting that from time to time a different metaphor is helpful, one of getting out of our “tanks” (our environments) and being awakened to what’s really going on at home. That’s no small thing. It might even save your life.