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.