by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 31, 2016
I often worry if I spend too much time escaping reality. Mostly I check out via television, books or daydreaming while listening to loud music. However, sometimes I just enjoy a sensual nap even when I’m not tired. I don’t allow myself drugs or alcohol, and my heart doesn’t allow mindless gluttony. I wonder why escapism wasn’t one of the original seven deadly sins? Or does sloth cover it?
Reality can be relentless. Sometimes we want to turn it off. What’s you’re preferred method? Some people have perfect lives. They love every moment of living. Other people need occasional breaks from reality. They want to take a few hours off and think about something different. Then, there are the sad souls, who need to completely abandon their wretched fates. From hobbies to heroin, how do you switch channels on reality?
This makes me think about all the ways we interact with reality:
- Manipulate reality for our needs (gather food, find mates, clean house)
- Study reality (science, history, journalism, philosophy)
- Admire reality (meditate on the beauty of nature, enjoy works of art)
- Add to reality (create a beautiful work of art)
- Destroy/create (Cut a tree down to build a house)
- Mess with our perception of reality (drugs, fantasy, delusions)
- Turn off (sleep, become unconscious, inward meditation)
- Escape (create an alternate reality in your head for entertainment)
I’m using the word reality in a specific way. It’s everything that’s outside of myself. I like to think of conscience beings as black boxes floating in an infinite objective reality. We exist in our box of subjectivity, gathering input through our senses, constructing a model of reality. Much like the Holodeck in the old Star Trek show. We never perceive reality directly, only by interacting with our model. Reality is too vast to actual grasp or perceive directly, but being realistic means working with an effective model. Escapism is when we consciously choose to ignore our inputs from the external reality and use our modeling mechanism to create fantasies. I’m never sure if escapist fantasies are how we wish reality was, or if we just prefer our substitute models of realities?
When I was growing up, I used science fiction to escape reality. My parents were alcoholics that should have divorced. Instead, they dragged my sister and I around the country hoping to find greener grass for themselves. I don’t blame them in the least, because I know they were just coping with reality the best way they could. Because of their alcohol abuse and my own experiments with drugs, I know about the paths of chemical escapism. But for this essay I’m not going to explore them. Those are negative forms of escapism. Are there positive forms of escapism? Is reading a great novel a positive form of escape? Or is it still an unhealthy negative way of dealing with reality?
Should we always face up to reality? Should we continuously keep our eyes focused on living in the now? When J. K. Rowling wrote her Harry Potter books was she escaping reality, or creating an artistic work of art for reality? Or a little bit of both? Happy people are often people who spend most of their time concentrating on being creative. Is building a house more reality based than writing a science fiction novel? Is a news junky living more realistically than someone who binges on The Walking Dead? Both spend endless hours watching TV.
Does watching TV always equal escapism? What about compulsive novel reading? Is taking a two-week Mediterranean cruise escaping reality or embracing it? Is sleep the body’s natural form of escapism, or a neutral state when we cease to exist in reality or subjectivity? We are taught by mindfulness instructors our thoughts get in the way. That idle brain chatter keeps us from seeing reality. They claim sitting quietly, ignoring our thoughts, but observing reality intently, is the best way to live in the now. Is that true? When is reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon a better choice?
Is living in the now, with a razor sharp focus on our inputs from reality more important than being creative?
Last night, my TV-buddy Janis and I binged on the first three episodes of Good Girls Revolt, an original series on Amazon, about women working at a fictionalized Newsweek in 1969. It’s based on the nonfiction book, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich. The show is very entertaining – but it’s also making a statement about reality. So was this three hours of TV watching escapism or education? The story reminded me of Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present – because dozens of women changed reality by pursuing lawsuits for equal treatment under the law. However, did Janis and I improve the accuracy of our models of reality what watching Good Girls Revolt? Or were we each escaping from other things we should be doing? Both of us have projects and obligations that would have benefitted from those three hours.
Is living a binary condition – where we exist either interacting with reality or hiding from it? Aren’t our ambitions about how we wish to alter reality? Isn’t the desire to get rich, laid, or fed essentially wanting to alter reality? Think about that for a moment though. Picture yourself as an amoeba, swimming around looking for something to eat or mate (assuming amoebas mate). Our soul is programmed to interact with reality like any other creature in existence. Could escapism just be another bodily function? Could we be programmed to find food, shelter and mates, and when not doing either, just kill time?
Take virtual reality (VR) – which we’re told is the next big thing in entertainment. Could there be a more perfect form of escapism? Isn’t VR a rejection of reality? They should market it as AR – alternative realities. Who really wants to simulate actual reality? What people want are better realities to take their minds off the fact their bodies exist in a reality of growing threats.
If you start thinking about it, are most of the great forms of escapism based on alternative realities. Books, movies, comics, television, are all designed to move you mind out of reality into an artificial construction. Think of it as Noah Ark for your mind. You read a science fiction novel hoping when you finish reality will be more appealing, and you’ll want to get back to work.
Which reminds me of all those people who want to travel to other planets. Isn’t space travel the ultimate form of escape? Wasn’t the film Interstellar all about escape? Time to toss Earth in the trash heap and head someplace new. I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, but that philosophy seems ugly to me. If we can’t build a perfect civilization on a paradise planet, why think we could do better elsewhere?
Look at the explosion of heroin addiction, the expanding acceptance of legal marijuana, the endless stories of designer drugs, or just sit in your car outside a liquor store and watch the steady flow of customers. I suppose the folks who can’t find comfort in fiction turn to chemicals.
Of course, healthier people have work and hobbies, and rich folk have conspicuous consumption. People with talent have art, invention and science, Caring people have charities to keep their minds focused. But if you’re sick and poor, what do you have?
What’s amazing is the small number of people actually working on solving the world’s problems. Most people pick escapism instead. You’d think working on solving our problems would be an overwhelmingly attractive form of escapism. It could keep our minds busy for the rest of our lives. Of course, I still can’t get over the fact that 7 billion minds lack the imagination to turn this planet into heaven. Evidently, as a species we’re pretty bad at parallel processing – or cooperation.
It’s rather ironic that Iraq and Syria, once cradles of civilization, are now our best examples of civilization collapse? People over there are about as close to reality as it gets. Maybe the purpose of civilization is to provide security from external reality, so we have time to indulge in artificial realities. Work is essentially manipulating reality. Play can be enjoying reality, like swimming at the beach, but quite often play is indulging in artificial realities – television, movies, plays, books, games, sports.
Traditionally, work is a virtue, and play is a vice, or at best a short vacation from work. Western culture teaches that reality is something we conquer, and idleness is a sin. Is that still true? I’m retired, and don’t have to work anymore. Many people do think of retirees as a burden on society. A large segment of the working age population can’t get work. Maybe we need to make new ways to interact with reality, and consider them new virtues.