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In Praise of Escapism (My op/ed running this week in very red VA-06)

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As I’ve been saying for years, life is a poorly controlled experiment. That’s because, in the words of the old beer commercial, “You only go around once.” As a result, you never can know for sure what factors led to what outcomes, what caused what.

A case in point is that I can’t tell how much a change I’ve observed in myself (over the past 15 years—as I’ve gone from 58 to 73) is the result of just getting older. And how much it is the result of my having spent these years looking into the heart of darkness, i.e. into the force that has been driving the nation I love ever-deeper into a moral and spiritual crisis playing out in our politics.

But whatever the explanation, there’s no mistaking the change: I find my tolerance for what’s frightening, or simply anxiety-producing, much diminished from what it was in my younger years.

I notice this especially when I watch movies. There is a variety of situations presented in the movies – often involving bad faith, lies, broken promises, evil triumphing over good – that can cause me more distress me than I’m willing to take. So I’ll stop watching for a while, or switch to some other film on my DVR, to allow my tension from watching such darkness to subside.

I was never like that in the days of my youth. From my late teens onward, I had an appetite for narratives (written or filmed) that dealt with the dark and the difficult. (My biggest project in college, for example, focused on tragic drama.)

Back then, I felt some kind of mild disrespect for the people who were into “escapist” literature and movies, people who chose comfort over enlightenment, who preferred the formulaic and bland and superficial.

In retrospect, it seems that I did not have a very good empathetic understanding of why people might choose — might choose wisely — to escape from dealing with the dark and the difficult, and to seek out what’s comfortable. Now my own experience has led me to understand that choice.

So how should this change in me about “escapism” be understood?

It’s generally said that as people get older, they feel more vulnerable, more fearful and anxious. That general truth has led me to wonder, How much is my greater feeling of vulnerability and anxiety a function simply of my getting older?

Some, maybe. But it seems pretty clear to me most of this change in me comes from my working full-time these past 15 years, confronting how our America has been damaged more and more as a destructive force has gained more and more power.

It took only three years –– until 2007 – of my continuously witnessing this dismantling of what’s best about America for me to feel, for the first time in my life, a pressing need for a vacation, for a spiritual break from the darkness. My work wasn’t just challenging. It was traumatic.

So in this phase of my life – and at this phase of American history — reality gives me more than enough experience of the dark and the dangerous. It’s more than challenging enough to focus my attention on how the world and the U.S. have been moving in the wrong directions, at what seems like a quickening pace, toward a world and a nation

  • where thuggery rather than decency wields power,
  • where lies so often can defeat the truth,
  • where otherwise “good people” lend their support to political forces that make everything more broken.

With the burden of that reality, I look with gratitude upon the escapist fare that’s available to me (mostly in movies I record from the satellite). Escaping into

  • Singing in the Rain,” where I can feel a kind of joy watching Gene Kelly dance happily through the puddles, singing the celebratory title song.
  • The Philadelphia Story,” where great performances (by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart) glide the viewer so gracefully through a series of satisfying interactions leading to so satisfying a conclusion.
  • The Longest Day,” where we follow a whole vast cast of characters enacting heroic roles in one of the greatest military accomplishments in all history (the successful landing of the Allies onto the coast of France, to begin the drive to destroy the evil Nazi regime—a triumph of good over evil).

As for something that tears your heart out? That I’m less likely to watch. My heart is torn enough, thank you.

So now I understand how we can choose our stories to feed our spirits whatever are the spiritual nutrients we require.

I’ve learned how people who, in their actual lives, are dealing with quite enough of what’s difficult and dark, might — in their vicarious lives — wisely decide that the nourishment their spirits need can be the comfort and pleasure that Escapism can provide.