When was the last time you escaped?  I mean fully escaped into a wonder-inducing, awe-inspiring landscape, or sci-fi, or song?

Humans are meant to escape.  We are driven by the impulse to escape.  It’s what led us to multiply, fill the earth and attempt to subdue it.  It’s what drives us to space travel and interplanetary colonization.  It’s what allowed us to discover mind-altering substances and rituals.  It is not the avoidance of living, it is living.

We all have a deep longing for escape.  Escape is a kind of homecoming.  We all feel slightly out of place; we all have an urge to return home, whatever that might mean.  It is the drive to do this which lies at the back of all of our other impulses.  It’s a beautiful motivation.  It is making peace with life and death.  It is seeing beyond time and space.

I do not mean escape motivated by fear.  That is hiding.  I mean adventure motivated by the desire to escape in and of itself.  Escape requires boldness, persistence, vision, and integrity.  It is not cowardice but courage.

What are you escaping into?  What are you enraptured by?  Do you have the courage to follow it?  Your point of origin is not your destination.  Living is escaping.

A Word with T.K. Coleman: Escapism

I decided to try something new on the blog and ask my good friend and colleague T.K. Coleman to freestyle riff on a single word.  I gave him a word and without notice he gave me what came to mind.  I love how it turned out.

The word today is escapism.  I’m intrigued by unconventional interpretations of escapism (I wrote in favor of a form of escapism and one of the best decisions I ever made) and I knew T.K. would bring something unconventional.  I suspected he might have a few thoughts in a few paragraphs.  As always, he exceeded expectations.  An active mind is ready at a moments notice to spill out goodness.  I’ll turn it over to him.



The first thought that comes to my mind is this image:


It’s a picture I stumbled across a few years ago and it continues to grip my imagination.

What’s going on in this picture?

At first, it seems pretty obvious that this woman is a courageous or adventurous soul who’s preparing to make a daring and admiral leap towards freedom. After all, she’s getting ready to jump out of a cage. How can that be an example of anything other than a movement from captivity to freedom? But take a closer look. Where in the world is she going to land? She’s in the middle of the sky. Surely she’s going to die if she just jumps out of that cage without a parachute. Her cage may feel restricting (as the truth often does), but at least it offers her a better chance of survival than just taking an irrational leap into the clouds, right? Isn’t she being just a little bit crazy here? Isn’t she just allowing her frustration with the ugly truth of her situation to seduce her into illogical fantasies and false hopes? Maybe. But there are so many possible questions we could ask:What’s holding up the cage and how long will it continue to be able to do so? Is there anything holding it at all? Is the woman really jumping into the middle of the sky or is there something or someone waiting to catch her and we’re just unable to see? Does she know something about her situation that we don’t know?

It probably seems foolish for me to engage in this kind of exercise over a surreal photograph, but I think it illustrates the ambiguities involved in our judgments regarding when people are simply making an escape versus when people are practicing escapism.

Let me explain:

We tend to think of the word “escape” as the act or process of breaking free from restriction. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, for instance, lists the following as the first three entries for the term:

to get away from a place (such as a prison) where you are being held or kept

to get away from a dangerous place or situation

to get away from something that is difficult or unpleasant

So if someone says “My friend really needs a plan of escape,” we’ll most likely be inclined to regard that person’s friend as being in an undesirable situation and thus in need of some help. While it’s possible for us to regard a plan of escape as being a bad thing, it’s also possible for us to regard it as a good thing. We wouldn’t support a mass murder’s efforts to escape prison, but we’d definitely support someone’s efforts to escape slavery.

When it comes to escapism, however, we tend to think of it as the act or process of avoiding reality. Here’s what the same dictionary says about that word:

habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine

If someone says “My friend is an escapist,” we might be inclined to regard that person’s friend as being a delusional sort of individual who could benefit from a healthy dose of reality. Escapism tends to have a much more negative connotation than “escape.” If someone describes you as a person who’s trying to make an escape, there’s a chance that we’ll look at your efforts as noble. If someone describes you as an escapist, that’s almost always going to be looked at as a bad thing.

Sometimes we accuse people of practicing escapism (i.e. being delusional or irresponsible) when they’re actually just using their imagination to create an unconventional escape from an unnecessary or unjust form of confinement. This is precisely what J.R.R. Tolkien was getting at when he wrote the following:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

Neil Gaiman elaborated even further when he wrote:

“People talk about escapism as if it’s a bad thing… Once you’ve escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn’t have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality…Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

As both Tolkein and Gaiman point out, sometimes the best way to escape imprisonment is to risk looking like an escapist by taking your mind far away from the reality of your problems and focusing your attention on something that stimulates inspiration and creative thought.

Sometimes a legitimate escape towards true freedom can appear to be a delusional indulgence in mere escapism. And sometimes those who choose to remain where they are in the name of “facing reality” are the true escapists because they never face the realities made possible by radical leaps in their thinking. I think of the slaves who stayed back on the plantation laughing at the “silliness” of the ones who sought to get away and I think of Harriet Tubman’s words when she said “I freed thousands of slaves, and could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”

Now go back to the picture. There seems to be this ambiguity there when I really consider things. Maybe the woman is moving towards greater freedom. Maybe she’s moving towards lesser freedom. I simply don’t know. That sense of “I don’t know” —that’s what I think about when I hear the word “escapism.” I can be sure of what the word means, but can I be sure that I’m always correctly applying it to others when they ignore the realities I prefer them to focus on? I don’t know. I sometimes suspect that freedom may have a closer relationship with fantasy than what I’m currently prepared to believe.

Why I Don’t Follow the News

I rarely follow the news and almost never get it direct from news sources. What news I’m up on tends to find it’s way to me through filters – blogs I read, emails from friends, Facebook posts and hearsay.

This is not because of laziness or a lack of concern with being informed.  Indeed, I love information, trivia, knowledge and truth.  However, I found that keeping up on the news, especially reading papers and watching news shows, significantly diminished my quality of life.  It made me angry and depressed more often than not.

This is not because the cold, hard realities of terrestrial life are simply all bad news.  In fact every day billions of people are voluntarily, peacefully co-operating and being made better off through trade, commerce, community, and friendship.  Millions of things are invented, quality of life improves, the creative destruction of the market (in both goods and ideas) brings about untold beauty and opportunity.  Indeed, with a little bit of reflection it is not hard to see how vast, mysterious and awesome life is, even in the smallest tasks of a typical day.

But, probably for rational reasons, the news chooses to focus on those relatively few happenings between relatively few people that are violent, coercive and troubling.  A disproportionate amount of space is devoted to that tiny sliver of our individual and societal existence, politics, and nearly all the rest to all the other dangers and troubles in the universe.

It’s not an accurate picture of the world, nor is it particularly useful.  I think it was for this reason (and perhaps the generally bad quality of the writing) that C.S. Lewis warned against frequent newspaper reading.  Mark Twain (I think) said “Those who don’t read the news are uninformed.  Those who do are misinformed”.

Does this mean we turn a blind eye to reality so that we can be happy?  Isn’t that a form of escapism?  Frankly, I think that’s the wrong question.

There is a phenomenal scene in The Silver Chair, part of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, where a group of children and a kindly swamp creature are trapped in an underground world by an evil queen.  The queen has them under a sort of spell and she is trying to convince them that there is no outside world, but only the cavernous underworld.  When they object and say that the outside world is real she asks them what it is like.  They tell her it has a sun, which is much like the lights in the cave only bigger and brighter; it has lions which are much like the cats of the underworld only grander and more fierce, and so on.

The queen remarks that there is no outside world at all, but that the children have simply taken things from the real world and pretended they were bigger and better.  It was a mere game, and the reality was in the caves all along.

The group is on the verge of being persuaded of this sad state when the humble swamp creature proclaims that even if this were true, what would it say about the real world?  What kind of world would it be if children could easily create a make-believe world that was so much better?  Even if the outside world is make-believe, he declares, it’s so much preferable to the “real world” underground that he’d rather go on pretending.  At that the spell was broken, hope restored and the deceptive queen’s power rendered inert.

It is more than a mere cliche to say that perception is reality.  Expectation is also reality.  Believing a better world is real and possible makes this world better, if for no other reason than that positive, optimistic people are more pleasant to be around.

The evidence also supports optimism.  Who could ever have predicted the kinds of technologies and opportunities we have available today even just 50 or 100 years ago?  The iPhone alone is jam packed with capabilities that were the stuff of sci-fi even a decade ago.

Why then do we listen to the news when it constantly reports on the fearful side of the present and future?  That is only one view of reality.  It’s a tiny slice of all that is, and a very unrepresentative slice at that.  If a human can only take in so much of reality at once, why would I focus on the negative in a sea of positive?

I’d rather create my own reality – a powerful, free, beautiful one – than get angry about the false reality portrayed by the news.  If that’s escapism, so be it.  Escaping something bad into something better is nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s a choice to perceive and embrace reality in a more useful, constructive manner.

It doesn’t mean injustice doesn’t exist, or that there are not things I am hoping and fighting to change – not least of which are in myself.  It just means there are better ways of doing it and thinking about it.

Instead of letting it be selected for me, I choose each day what bits of news I take in about the vast and wondrous universe.  It beats the hell out of the paper.