The Four Stages Of Escapism
After a long harsh day of facing reality, what do you deserve? What do you do to escape, to get away from it all for a few hours?
There was a book that I read to my kids when they were younger called Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
It’s a book about a boy named Alexander whose day goes from bad to worse. He wakes up with gum in his hair, he gets his sleeve wet in the sink, he trips over a skateboard, and there’s no prize in his cereal box. And that’s just in the morning. It’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Then he goes to school and the teacher won’t acknowledge the picture that he drew of an invisible castle, there’s no dessert in his lunch. After school his Mom won’t buy him the kind of sneakers that he really wants. He gets drilled on by the dentist for a cavity, and later that night he gets soap in his eye when he’s taking a bath. And finally poor Alexander says “I’m going to move to Australia.” And the book wraps up with his mother brazenly telling him “Some days are just like that. Even in Australia.”
When my kids were little, I would finish that story, pull the covers up to their chins, turn out the light, and leave them alone in their existential despair to figure that one out.
After a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, what do you do to escape?
Where is the Australia that you long to run away to?
Maybe you go for a little walk.
Maybe you slip into the bathtub for a Calgon moment.
Maybe you hit the gym.
Maybe you zone out in front of the TV.
Maybe you log on to Facebook. And after an hour you realize you’ve been staring at the vacation pictures of somebody you don’t even know!
Maybe you stop by the gas station on the way home for a six pack of Heineken.
Maybe you shop.
Maybe you play World of Warcraft.
Maybe you drift off into another world with a novel, fantasizing about a different job in a different city with a different person in your bed.
Maybe your deal is you smoke a little pot on the back porch just to get the edge off.
Maybe you overeat.
Maybe sometimes when you’re on the road you click on forbidden web sites.
Or you’ve got some hidden credit cards you use to cover up the tracks of your gambling problem.
What are the ways that you escape to avoid reality?
What are the ways people know about? What are the ways that nobody knows about?
Escapism is focusing ones attention on something pleasant and enjoyable instead of the harsh reality of the real world. And here’s the thing: Escapism isn’t always a bad thing. Escapism is something that is profoundly human.
The British Poet Arther Christopher Benson wrote “All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality – the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times; how to escape.”
That’s fascinating when you think about it. A lot of our great art and literature is about escaping. We probably wouldn’t even have art if human beings didn’t have the God given ability to leave behind the worries of the day and to paint buffalo on the cave wall. All our best stories throughout history are about escape.
In some ways the ability to escape is a close cousin to the ability to create. To imagine. It’s a very good thing. But for some of us escaping has become harmful. Where is the line?
I think there are four stages of escapism.
Stage 1 Escapism: Healthy Enjoyment.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes chapter 11 it says “Oh, how sweet the light of day, and how wonderful to live in the sunshine! Even if you live a long time, don’t take a single day for granted. Take delight in each light-filled hour, remembering that there will also be many dark days and that most of what comes your way is smoke … Follow the impulses of your heart. If something looks good to you, pursue it. But know also that not just anything goes; You have to answer to God for every last bit of it.”
Some people are shocked when they hear that there are verses like that in the Bible. God saying “If you really want something, if you long for it, and its good, go for it and enjoy it.” There are passages earlier in Ecclesiastes that say “Eat, drink, enjoy the body of your spouse, have a good time!” But the Bible always adds… don’t ever let pleasure blind you to reality.
The first phase of escapism is healthy. It’s a good thing. In fact, it’s a command from God. In the fourth commandment, God said ‘do your work six days a week’ but then take a day off. God designed human beings, and then built rest, relaxation, and healthy escape into the framework of our very lives.
Simple, healthy escapism is not only good, it’s essential. But there’s a second stage to escapism.
Stage 2 Escapism: Avoidance.
Avoidance is something you do in order to postpone dealing with a problem in your life. Its one thing to spend a couple of hours playing XBox, or Facebooking, or gardening after you have dealt with the work and problems of the day. It’s another thing entirely to escape in order to avoid something.
The ultimate reality that we usually try to avoid is that we are not in control of the world. So we substitute – we try to control our escaping.
There’s no shortage of things we would rather avoid.
Our financial situation.
Or a mindless, soulless job.
The fact that life hasn’t turned out quite the way you thought it would.
A marriage relationship that is deteriorating.
That pile of emails and calls that everyone is expecting you to return, the uncertainty of a company you might be leading.
The shame you feel for something that you did in the past or something that was done to you.
What is it right now that you would just rather avoid, and not think about, and not deal with?
Listen – the best way to escape a problem is to deal with the problem. Not medicate it. Not postpone it. Not search for something to distract you from it. Not look for an emotional high somewhere else.
Because here’s the thing: When you come down off of your buzz, when you leave the hotel room, when you switch the computer off, when you are done escaping, the same problem is still staring you right in the face. In fact, you might have just made it worse.
God is interested in helping you face the truth, and if you are willing to do it, he will step up and assist you. Listen to these beautiful words from Isaiah 43. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God.”
Read your own story into that passage.
God makes a promise throughout scripture to BE WITH you. So he says ‘if you will deal with your financial difficulties, take that course and make a plan, then I will be with you.’ If you will go to your spouse and discuss the elephant that is in the bedroom about your intimacy, he says ‘I will carry you through that.’ If you will face your fear, confront it boldly, appeal to me in faith you will not be burned. That is the way that I work.
Stage 3 Escapism: Neglect
It is one thing to avoid portions of a terrible horrible no good very bad day. Its quite another thing when your method of escape results in you neglecting your responsibilities to the people in your life and the commitments that you have made.
Think about this world we live in. We’ve got all sorts of addictions these days that didn’t even exist a few years ago. We didn’t even have names for 50 years ago.
I found a lot of these while I was surfing the internet for 45 hours last week:
Tanorexia – people who are addicted to tanning beds.
Pegophagia – people who chomp on ice all the time.
Ego Surfing – people who constantly Google themselves.
Technology allows us to escape reality and even to neglect part of our lives. You cross the line from avoidance and into the territory of neglect when your escapist behaviors begin interfering with your ability to function. When you’re late for work or school because you couldn’t stop playing Cooking Mama on your Wii.
The very first escapist in the Bible was Adam. God called out to him in the garden “Adam, Adam, where are you?” And he pops out of the bushes and says “Here God, here I am.” And he lies – instead of admitting he just ate the forbidden fruit he says “I was hiding because I just got out of the shower and I was naked.”
Have you ever done that? Told a lie to cover up your addiction?
Have you ever told a lie in a restaurant to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom to purge?
Do you have some secret hiding places in your house where you keep junk food? Or alcohol? Or cigarettes? Or magazines?
You ever ask someone to lie for you?
Have you ever covered your cybertracks by clearing out the history in your web browser so nobody will ever know where you have been?
See, when escapism crosses over into the realm of neglect, you start feeling ashamed about what you are doing, and that’s when the lies begin. And the cycle goes like this: Resolve to do better. Try harder. Fail. Feel guilty. Feel ashamed. Make more promises. Rinse and repeat.
And only you know in your heart of hearts that what you are doing to escape is driving a wedge between you and the kind of life that you really long for.
Stage 4 Escapism: Obsession
This is the stage where you no longer have control of your life, where your entire life becomes about escaping. You no longer can function, and the consequences of your escapist behavior come piling down on you.
This is the stage where you start to lose your family.
This is the stage where you get called into the boss’ office for the third time.
This is the stage of collection agencies, doctors visits, and pawning your prized possessions.
And you start to doubt that there is any amount of willpower that you could muster to change, and you suspect the answer is probably no.
And the danger with this stage is not that God can’t help you, its that you see no hope of God helping you.
But here’s the good news: God says if you will let me in to your escapism, I’ll be there for you. Listen to this from the book of Isaiah. I have seen what they do, but I will heal them anyway! I will lead them. I will comfort those who mourn, bringing words of praise to their lips. May they have abundant peace, both near and far,” says the Lord, who heals them.
God says ‘you know that thing that you think you’ve hidden from everybody? I’ve seen it.’ You know that thing you’ve hidden the consequences of, even from yourself? I know about it all, and if you’ll just step forward with a little bit of honesty, I’ll bring you healing.
Are you ready for that? Because if you are, you’re in the right place emotionally and psychologially.
Escapism can be great – but if you’re further than Stage 2, maybe it’s time to find a helpful, grace-filled environment where there can be trust and authenticity and healing and you can get on the road to transformation.