Most of my preferred forms of entertainment involve escapism. When given the downtime and opportunity I am no stranger to, say, sitting in a movie theatre and fully suspending my disbelief, rolling up a decent Dungeons & Dragons druid at table complete with awkwardly named animal companion, or finding that spot under a tree in the sunlight that allows me to not only revisit the carefree days of my youth, but also sink my teeth into any well-crafted thrill betwixt O. Henry and Dan Brown.
Yet, I find myself more and more frequently, more and more deeply, desiring richer forms of decompression. There was a time when traveling was the stress reliever I’d consistently swear by. Camping, while escapist in the sense of disconnecting from the modern world, was also proactive in engaging the natural one. I feel almost silly when having to write that “I do remember going to parties.”
It happens. It’s life. We mature and as we do we mature into different sets of priorities and responsibilities. We do so as our oldest friends might move away, as our work colleagues might never join us outside of the office, and as our original support systems give way to new ones that can tend toward focusing on that set of priorities rather than you, the “needy” individual who’d arranged them.
And when this happens, it is no wonder why downtime might get more readily fractured and spent in microcosm. It is no surprise that chosen forms of entertainment for a contemporary adult are steered, perhaps for the first time in life, toward activities that involve lesser and lesser planning, lesser and lesser engagement with people, lesser cost, lesser durations, and frequently lesser return on your attempt to tame the stressors. That tropical island is far away and you can only afford the group rate, but television is right there. Organized volunteering can feel like work, but there’s an Entenmann’s cake on the counter within arm’s reach. What beauty could possibly be experienced at that poetry reading when you’ve got the ultimate beauty of your significant other right there, in-house? Let’s get real. What decent and career-driven parent has time for an underwater spelunking hobby?
So we read for half hour clips. We flip on the video game and keep a steady finger poised on the pause button, prepping for the twenty interruptions that will likely befall our only biweekly block of “alone time.” We pretend that sleep is one hundred percent recuperative and that a Saturday stroll around the block is getting us somewhere.
These truisms I bring up for discussion are nothing new. Our entire Generation X and those coming up behind us have been aware of the dangers of poor stress relief decisions for a lifetime. Studies continue to show that the results of doing nothing about stress are particularly severe, a severity that increases with the number of and complexity of stressors in our environments. So, in a sense, these words I write to re-familiarize readers with a problem that has not gone away, could in some manner be considered a case against escapism and for what I’ll call “engagism.” Written as such and supported by study, it would seem not only important to create the downtime in heftier spans, but to use that time in a single, uninterrupted and engaged practice that relieves pressures. It’s not that you have the vacation; it is what you do with it. The physical toll of stress takes a lot more to undo than most realize.
Still, I am somewhat more compelled to bring up a mental toll that my personal stress level has helped into being. Like the cause and effect written about above, we are also familiar with the common metal tolls of poorly exercised decompression mechanisms. Inability to concentrate, memory difficulties, lack of attention span, more frequented mistakes, verbal exchanges that take place in anger, sleep difficulties, disengaged behavior, some forms of depression, they are all mental products related to elevated stress. Everybody is further familiar with the proverbial extremes of this state. We speak of people who “crack” or “lose it” indicating our belief in a personal threshold for mental stress that, when surpassed, has the power to change a person forever after.
I, like many, have been happy enough to accept both these common notions and these extreme notions of mental stress without further investigation. However, whereas I once might have thought those lists to be quite complete, when looking in on myself, I see what I believe is a disregarded and very dangerous mental reaction to stress.
Having opted so often for escapism over engagism in my grown-up entertainment selections, that escapism has become a very, very commonplace response to my environment. It is so well practiced as my go-to idea on “fun” that I no longer think about it, re-examine it, question it, or challenge it. I’ve nullified choice. I’ve become my own Pavlov’s dog. Layer that well-burned neural pathway onto both the fact that the escapism doesn’t always yield fun and the fact that it is practiced in microcosm with interruptions and split focus and you start to see that the go-to idea no longer even serves the purpose of escaping. Escapism itself becomes less of device for de-stressing and more of a cyclical form of thought that goes by without notice. Not really used for fun aymore, it’s now a familiar thought pattern that gets misapplied to almost anything else I might be too stressed to examine properly. In my case, as might be the case with many men, I’ve attached that thought process to my unfounded excuses.
What do I mean? I’ve realized very recently that, while I’ve always known I am far from perfect, I am also in no way living up to the current best that I can be. In my youth, this was an imperative. Always being the best I could be and however that stacked up against life was my prime directive. I understood it as my raison d’être through the touchier, feelier parenting techniques of my elders who dictated, “Win or lose, so long as you’ve done your best, that’s all that matters.” Being the best I could be was a self-evident truth that encompassed not only the clear hope of always expanding that possibility, creating new personal bests, but in a large way my core identity. It was a concept that simultaneously spoke to me as an individual (as my best would differ from that of others) and as a shared experience (in that so many would also try to be the best they could be).
Somehow, at sometime, I’ve relaxed that concept. I’ve become lazy about it. And it’s my unexamined, escapist, thought process that has allowed me to perpetuate under the delusion that this is okay. See, whereas some husbands might take their escapism to a practiced extreme, devoting entire weeks to televised sports, video games, and as much food and sex as they can muster, trying to offset a rough spot at work; I’ve taken it to a vicious cycle in the mind.
Escapism, as a thought process, has become so second nature to me that my mind voluminously wanders into visions of me at my best, my best foot forward as a husband, father, friend, brother and cousin. These are visions that are currently fictional. I am picturing myself doing things that I know I can do. I’ve done them before. I envision myself doing new things, unique things, groundbreaking, life-altering things. I know I can accomplish those. Yet, all of a sudden, that vision feels like enough. I’m not actually performing, instead accessing the ideas more frequently as if the ideas alone could have a direct impact on building a better life. The sequences play over and over in my head and I oddly derive pleasure from them as I would from screening a blockbuster summer film or going to a concert. It seems like me and my psyche have comfortably jumped to the false conclusion that like other escapist devices, I can access this “best me” readily. As quickly as I might reach for a video game controller, so too can I change overnight into the best husband I can be. Well, what are the odds of that? Grabbing the controller is near zero effort. Being the best husband I can be, never-ending, prioritized, altruistic effort, a drastic change to contributions tomorrow that I’m not even remotely making today. The video game eventually gets shut off. The best me cannot. The best me shut off a long time ago and, apart from elevating awareness via this blog, look at the horrible place I took it to.
Sure, some might contend that even this lesser version of me is somehow better than the bests of select others, but it’s not about comparisons. It’s about selfhood. In losing track of my best, I lose my identity and with that go my roles, my relationships, and my destiny. I share because I think a lot of people may actually be experiencing something similar and I would ask for your personal advice. As a self-proclaimed deep thinker, I’d hoped that mere acknowledgment of what I was going through would help to overcome it. Hence far, that’s proven not the case against this particular malaise.
My search, though still in its infancy, has revealed to me the concrete necessity of motivators. Knowing what needs to be done cannot lead to accomplishment in the absence of working motivators. And therein lies the defeatist in me. I look and I look and I look and while I am astonishingly impassioned to be my best version of a husband, to be my best version of a father, as of yet I find nothing that honestly motivates my needed change. I haven’t found a one that works for me anymore. I currently experience more motivation to escape to the mental images of my top notch self than to become that self. It’s slowly killing me.
Labels: cognition, decompression, engage, escapism, intellect, logic, mature, maturity, metacognition, opinion, reason, social, stress, thinking