If you’d asked me at age twelve what were my goals in life, I would have promptly replied, “Become a veterinarian and move to Japan.”
On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those ambitions, but the motivation behind those choices is where the trouble sets in. As an awkward preteen tired of being known as my school’s resident oddball, I wanted to be a vet not because I loved animals, but because I wanted to avoid working with people. And as for Japan, well, that was about the farthest place from my hometown I could find when I looked at a map of the world.
From this perspective, it becomes clear my supposed “goals” were nothing more than avoidance. My objectives weren’t founded on realism, passion, or love—they were simply my chosen means of escape.
The Importance of Rest
The desire to avoid the problems we face in our day-to-day lives is nothing new. Entire industries capitalize daily on the idea of getting away from it all, even if only briefly, through products like travel, entertainment, and social media. This desire has only been heightened in recent times with the onset of coronavirus-inspired restrictions and general social unrest making the future seem anything but certain.
God is very much aware of this basic human need to take a break. He knows that if we focus exclusively on work, hardships, or the spiritual battle constantly being waged around us, we’ll quickly burn out and become overwhelmed, at risk of falling prey to a sense of hopelessness or despair. It is for this exact reason that he instituted the Sabbath day by resting from his work of creation (Genesis 2:2-3). It wasn’t because God himself needed rest, as if it were possible for him to grow tired, but rather, to leave us an example to follow.
On its own, the desire to take a break from the stressors of life is not a bad thing. Even Jesus took time apart from the crowds to recharge in the presence of his heavenly Father (Mark 2:35). And when his disciples returned from their first missionary journey, he told them to “‘Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while’” (Mark 6:31). To say life can get difficult sometimes would be a huge understatement. Surely we modern-day disciples also deserve a little distraction every now and again, right?
How Much Is Too Much?
The problem with seeking a reprieve from monotony or difficulties, however, is that it can quickly spiral into unhealthy behavior if left unchecked. Though distractions are far from exclusively digital in nature, digital platforms have transformed the entertainment industry in the past few years, offering us a multitude of ways to amuse ourselves. We can lose ourselves in an endless news feed, become engrossed in binge-watching a compelling series, or chase that all-too-easily-attainable sense of accomplishment scattered throughout video games like a trail of virtual breadcrumbs.
It is worth noting that none of these distractions, or any others for that matter, are inherently bad. Just as sinful behavior is merely the excessive use of some natural good, so too with entertainment or distractions. Exercise, for example, is a good thing, but not if it eclipses the more important aspects of life, such as time spent with family and friends. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with watching TV, scrolling through social media, or leveling up a fictional character. But when we start to treat them as ends in and of themselves—when the goal of engaging in such activities grows from taking a break to breaking with reality entirely—we risk falling prey to escapism.
A Subtle Shift
Escapism can be broadly defined as the desire to distract oneself from reality, typically through activities that engage the imagination by providing us with something else to focus on. On its own, escapism is perfectly normal. It can become pathological, however, when we use such activities to avoid engaging with reality altogether.
So how can we engage with distractions in a healthy way without becoming chronic escapists? The trick is to redefine what we consider an escape to be. Instead of expecting an escape to involve disengagement with reality, why not seek rest through the alternative—namely, engagement with a different aspect of your reality?
Need some examples? Consider implementing the following tips the next time you feel the need for an escape:
1. Make it social
Escaping stress doesn’t have to be an activity for one. Taking a break from your daily duties can be as simple as meeting up with some friends, which interrupts your usual schedule and takes you out of yourself through engagement with others. Listening to friends’ stories can be just as compelling as a TV drama while offering the added reward of forging closer bonds—something that you just can’t get from passive entertainment!
2. Make it useful
Instead of spending free time on passive activities, why not try something new or practice a skill? During the early stages of the lockdown, I found myself drawn to the kitchen. Not only is the physical aspect of peeling, slicing, and chopping a welcome distraction from my typically cerebral and digital work, I also find cooking to be an extremely creative outlet—a liberating task in which I can try just about anything! Best of all, I feel great knowing that in preparing food I’m honing a skill that will serve me well not only in the present, but also in my discerned vocation as wife and mother.
3. Make it short
Let’s face it—as great as friends are and as helpful as it is to learn new skills, there are just some times when all we want to do is relax on the couch. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But if you’re planning to engage in a passive activity, be sure to set a limit on this method of escape beforehand. Allow yourself a reasonable amount of time to watch TV or scroll through social media, and then when time’s up, get up and reengage with reality.
4. Make it natural
There is an abundance of data supporting the claim that time in nature reduces stress and lifts our mood. So why not use nature as a method of escape? Nature doesn’t have to mean wild forests or sprawling fields. It can be any place with green elements: a park, your backyard, even an apartment balcony if populated by enough plants! When you feel like you need a break from daily life, step into a green space and really connect. Take deep breaths. Touch the leaves. Run your hand across the tree bark. Study the clouds. Admire God’s handiwork. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, take a barefoot walk through the grass.
5. Make it spiritual
As wonderful as the created world is, it’s nothing when compared to the Creator. Let’s not neglect Christ when we’re looking for rest from what wearies us! Consider changing your routine by attending a weeknight Mass or stopping by a church for a few minutes of Adoration between errands. Even if you’re stuck at home, praying the Surrender Novena or another favorite devotion can provide a little break from the everyday while simultaneously reminding you of who’s really in control. Staying connected to Jesus through the sacraments will not only help us keep things in perspective, it will also remind us that we are not alone in the struggles we face and give us the strength we need to continue our daily work of discipleship.