escapism n. the tendency to seek distraction and relief from reality.
I hereby go on the record to (politely) disagree with the Oxford English Dictionary (’96 edition), because while I do indeed use many forms of media to distract myself from reality, I don’t do it to get ‘relief’. I am not depressed or stressed, I’ve not suffered any recent trauma and nor do I shy away from working a forty hour week or being with my family.
What I am, more often than not, is bored.
The label of ‘escapist’ remains a largely negative one and to identify yourself as such may lead people to believe you are some lost, childish dreamer. Someone who cannot ‘handle’ reality and so chooses to distance themselves from it, rather than ‘grow up’ and face their responsibilities.
One stigma so often associated with the word ‘escapism’ is the one of mental illness. The refusal to acknowledge the recreational value of reading fiction and gaming while instead linking the idea to eating disorders and drug addiction. The insinuation that people who feel the need to take a break from everyday life are somehow ‘broken’ is a disheartening one.
I have known people to go to great lengths to help me come out of my shell or embrace the real world. They are sweet and always acting with the best of intentions, but they will never find me walk willingly into a pub when I have the opportunity to read a new novel. I am many things, an introvert and escapist among them but these states aren’t ones which require intervention. I do not need to be fixed. I haven’t shunned reality, but it rarely interests me like the prospect of a world where dwarfs sing songs and slay dragons.
In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories‘, J. R.R. Tolkien addresses the consolation of fancy, the joy we allow ourselves to feel when arriving at a happy ending. We seek this cathartic state not because we wish to deny the existence of sorrow or failure, but simply because it is a nice thing to feel.
There are degrees of escapism as with most things and I’m not about to claim that all forms are ‘healthy’ and that people who hide away from the world out of fear do not need support. What I would say is that with so many industries founded on the idea that people want to experience something else for a while, shouldn’t we really be moving on from this bad attitude?
In her article over on A Dribble of Ink, Foz Meadows uses a great metaphor for escapism:
The ability to escape into fiction is […] the equivalent of being able to holiday anywhere and enjoy it.
It’s a lovely sentiment, one which I agree with wholeheartedly. It’s just a shame that I’ve come to feel almost guilty for identifying with it.
Perhaps the issue with escapism being seen in such a bad light isn’t so much the act itself, but the time an individual devotes to seeking it? A trip to the cinema is normal enough, though people connect with the films they watch in different ways I know. Reading a book over the course of a week or month isn’t exactly unheard of either…
Spending hours upon hours every night playing World of Warcraft in the dark is probably slightly less socially acceptable. The ‘grown man living in his mother’s basement’ stigma is one the gaming community took decades to shift and even now still lingers.
But even if the case is all a matter of timing, then I could be categorised as avoidant or worse, I’m sure. On my days off I am content to spend only a few hours in the company of other people, retreating to my computer, books or television for quality time instead. Yet I remain a highly functioning member of society (albeit a slightly grumpy one).
This subject is vast and complex and authors far more educated than I have come out to discuss it. So instead of fumbling around in it any further I will simply finish with explaining why I devote so much of my time to places and people who I know don’t exist:
It makes me happy.
My life is a series of steps, ones which I take everyday, some that I enjoy and some that I don’t. The world is vast and constant, spinning around a sun that will shine long after I’m gone. I have friends and family and all of them are important to me. But the walk to work becomes so much more interesting when, in place of the field that stretches out to my left, I see the overgrown ruins of a spaceport instead.
Read a bit more about escapism why don’t you: