Escaping Our Quotidian Problems: Listening on a Different Level

I don’t know about you, but I am a definite music lover. Unless what I’m doing requires 100% focus, I have music on nearly all the time. In many respects, I like the way music fills up the silence, distracting me from my underlying melancholy. There’s so much distress in this world and when I look around and watch others struggling, I feel helpless—for them and for me. I don’t always enjoy being alone with my thoughts and music helps alleviate that. To me, the ability to write songs is probably one of the most extraordinary talents a person can possess—the melody caresses our ears as its storyline invades our imaginations, taking us to a place we wouldn’t otherwise know how to find. What makes music so sneakily effective is that as we go about our day attending to our duties, it can worm its way into our consciousness, seeding itself into our stream of thought as we hum along, breathing in its rhythms. Like any other sort of low level, ongoing exposure, we become so accustomed to its presence that we modify our attitudes and behavior accordingly (be that positive or negative). This background noise can wind up impacting us far more than we realize; we’ve forgotten what life can be like without it.

So, being on vacation these past few weeks, I’ve had time to listen to a lot of cds I don’t ordinarily play. I can pay attention to the songs in a way I don’t back home, when I’m focused on accomplishing goals and getting through my day. At the top of my vacation playlist has been the Eagles. That Don Henley is quite the bard–a philosopher king, he is. In his lyrics, he waxes rhapsodic about the consequences that unfold when following the wrong gods home (which I misheard as the wrong dogs) or asks us if we’re making it harder than it needs to be. His phrases leap into my awareness, poking and prodding as I sit and stare out onto the lush green that surrounds this place. I’ve followed too many wrong dogs myself, so it’s with a certain amount of wry discomfort that I listen to the song obsessively…

People on holiday seem to fall into one of two categories: the manic or the lethargic. The manic types are compelled to expend all their energy, throwing themselves into endless rounds of socializing or exploration, determined to squeeze every drop of potential from this “time out” in their lives as if they’ll never again have a chance to see or do whatever it is. Their lethargic brethren choose the opposite: preferring to remain holed up in their shady retreats, avoiding unnecessary social interaction, their torpidity matching closely that of a sloth. Taken to the extreme, each of these vacation behaviors reflects an attempt to escape situations individuals cannot bear to examine. There are so many ways adults run away from their problems. I have watched people I care about hide from their reality by burying themselves in their work or the bottle or volunteer activities, hoping this devotion will somehow ameliorate whatever challenges they face when, in reality, their efforts will never resolve the predicament that burdens them.

Our problems travel with us, whether we’re on vacation or not. Having spent a lot of time running away from my own, I now believe that vacations are the ideal time to work on resolving these quandaries. Dedicating specific time, energy, and thought to finding new strategies to cope and conquer will do more for us in the long run than any playtime distraction can provide. In the long run, we cannot hide from the challenges Fate has placed in our path, intending for us to learn from and to overcome. As they say in Star Trek, “resistance is futile.”

Despite everything we tell ourselves, the thing about “hiding” is that we usually remain seen. While we’re busy pretending that nobody notices, they actually do. They may not have a full read on the situation, but they’ve got enough to make a pretty good guess. Whether immersed in a whirlwind of activity or almost always seen alone, we avoid acknowledging their knowing, sympathetic half smiles because denial means we don’t have to do anything about “it.” Exhausted from years of efforts to keep our marriage from crumbling further or propping up our unstable or narcissistic partner, we either collapse behind closed doors or immerse ourselves in manic busyness that we pray will deliver some reprieve. The fact that our eagerly awaited vacation does not deliver the palliative we were seeking makes us feel restless and disappointed, unsure what to try next. We tell ourselves that vacations are meant to be a break from our worries when, actually, what they provide is an opportunity to focus on resolving these concerns. The sort of dedicated energy and thought that is required to analyze, assess, and formulate an action plan is most easily found when we are on break. Now is not the time to “forget about it all.”

Does what I’m saying make any sense?

This is probably not what you wanted to hear. Forcing ourselves to reflect upon wildly inconvenient and potentially threating problems is the least relaxing thing a person can do—especially when you already feel beaten down and resigned to the chronic challenges in your life. But this time you have, this unstructured escape brings with it the opportunity to focus, to bring your very best thinking to problems that matter to you. This is re-booting. This is the mysterious period when the screen goes dark and you have no idea if anything is happening. I encourage you to dedicate some time thinking about solutions to your problem, but also giving yourself permission to let your mind wander, to invite in wild sounding possibilities, to speculate, to dare. ”What if” may be one of the most revolutionary phrases there is…

Vacations offer us the opportunity to tap into those stores of thinking, creativity, and energy that we don’t always have access to. For instance, depending on the task at hand, I have to summon varying qualities of thinking and energy to achieve my goal. Preparing a meal requires very little active focus whereas drafting a blog post requires quite a lot. Negotiating highway traffic doesn’t drain me in the same way that gearing up for a school reunion does. So, when it comes to major re-booting matters such as life direction or ongoing family issues, the questions are so huge we need dedicated time and energy to devote to this. Distress is endemic in the world today; it drains our life force, lessening our effectiveness. Although tackling intractable matters demands much of us—especially when all we want to do is relax—meeting them head on when we are removed from our daily lives is the best moment to do so. Denial and pretending gets you nowhere—that’s a truth you already know. So, in whatever remaining days you have on your vacation, I want you to kick back, close your eyes, listen to some good music and really think about whatever it is you need to solve. New ideas will occur to you if you’re brave enough to let them surface.

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