Like many people, I read Adam Grant’s New York Times piece on our collective languishing during the pandemic when it made the internet rounds a couple of weeks ago. He describes the symptoms—“a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield”—then gives the psychological background as well as practical tips for overcoming the slog: give yourself uninterrupted time, focus on small goals. It’s all great stuff.
Grant’s article had me thinking: Just why is this tugging to be elsewhere and to escape stasis so important to our wellbeing? Is it possible to trick ourselves into getting what we get out of travel and escape without actually travelling or escaping? This sounds like a COVID riddle, but bear with me. I am going somewhere with this, even if I am going nowhere (badum-tsch).
To a certain extent, we’re all unable to really process the effect the pandemic is having on us. When one voice in my brain starts to think, “I wish…” another forceful, albeit protective voice shuts it down with, “Honestly, what else would you be doing? Vacationing? Pfft. Vacations are for the weak. You took time off work and played video games on the couch for two days straight. ISN’T THAT ENOUGH?” And I say, “Yeah, sure, brain, you’re right, I’m pretty lucky,” and puddle along.
But there’s still that tugging.
There is no “elsewhere” to escape to right now because that’s the reality of a global pandemic. There is no fantasy island, untouched by even the thought of COVID, where waiters bring you gloriously salty and sour margaritas. No place where you can lean in and whisper to someone without wondering if you’ve inadvertently killed them.
Even without a pandemic, we all know that the urge: to just take off and go away. This is why it hurts so much now when even a jaunt to a different neighbourhood might be out of the question.
Going elsewhere is often a disguised quest for personal change. When we’re tired, when we need something new—whether it’s a change of pace or a change of address. Travel is often one of the first things we do to kick off those journeys: you move to a different city, you spend a semester abroad learning French, you meet up with family on vacation and catching up with everyone makes you reconsider your own choices, you and a friend take a once-in-a-lifetime backpacking trip across Europe, you road-trip to Milwaukee and eat some cheese, etc.
Travel gives us a break from ourselves. From our doldrums of daily living. And in that blank space, it offers us a platform to pulverize our identities so we can remould and remake ourselves anew.
Being elsewhere is a sort of ecstasy. The root of ecstasy, ekstatis, literally means “standing outside of oneself.”
From outside your normal habits and routines, you can gaze upon the creature you might be. You can write the fan-fiction of your own life, imagining who you might be if you lived in a different city or if you just quit your nine-to-five and became a scuba instructor.
I think that’s the hardest part of being physically stuck in place—how it leads to us also feeling mentally “stuck.” After all, how we can possibly grow when we’re surrounded by the memories of who we were before the pandemic? When our lives feel like they’re in stasis?
I want to ask you to consider that travel is just a state of mind. It’s a mood, if you will. And even if you’re stuck at home, your mind is still free. You don’t have to stop your growth just because it feels like the world has stopped. Have your plants stopped growing during the pandemic? No. (Unless in your COVID-brain fugue state you’ve forgotten to water them, which… fair enough).
“So I moved to California‚ but it’s just a state of mind.
It turns out everywhere you go‚ you take yourself‚ that’s not a lie.”
– Lana Del Rey, “Fuck it I love you”
While travel might give you that first-person change in perspective that often leads to psychological growth and personal development, you can shift how you see the world internally, too. It might not have all the flash of a vacation abroad, but it’s possible. You know that picture of Earth taken on Christmas Eve, 1968, by astronaut Bill Anders?
You weren’t there to see it in person, but doesn’t it still move you?
Maybe seeing Earth from space makes you realize that borders aren’t real and that we are less of a collection of official countries and more like a bunch of life-form coulis drizzled over a rocky and moist terrain that is spinning through space and that life itself is just so improbable that it makes your head spin.
Or maybe you’re thinking about, like, whether to get pad thai or pizza for dinner—I don’t know your life.
What I’m saying is: change is internal. Even when we go elsewhere, when we “get away from ourselves,” everything we’re experiencing and feeling is taking place inside our heads. That’s why that photo of Earth is magical to everyone with a pulse and an imagination, not just the astronauts who saw it.
Change is just us, disguised under a cloak and moustache, trying to convince ourselves that there’s something else, an unknowable, mystical catalyst for change that’s entering our lives. But if you peek under the cloak, it’s really just us under there, all along. Everywhere you go, you take yourself.
Travelling doesn’t insert magical, change-making hormones into your head. You live differently, then you realize change is possible, then you try to keep some of that when you come home. You can make life at home different, too.
Part of the “going elsewhere” is that it breaks your routine, which is what snaps you into that “living differently” mindset. If you take a close look at the invisible tracks on which you choo choo through your life, can you see where you could derail things, or take a path you hadn’t considered before? Maybe try it. Act against instinct. See where it takes you. Maybe it’ll be great, maybe it won’t, but it’s not like travel is great all the time, either. It’s just different.
While it’s true that trying new things at home might be scary because it doesn’t offer you the safe cocoon of anonymity that travelling abroad does, who cares? It’s the pandemic. It’s okay to be sloppy. It’s okay to be imperfect. There has never been such a general, societal shrug offered to us as now. This is the time to find where your edges are. It’s okay to be weird during the pandemic. And it’ll be okay to keep that weirdness once the pandemic’s over; your weirdness is truth.
If the purpose of travel is to get away from yourself, to imagine yourself through different eyes, to abandon your beliefs so you can remake yourself in another image, maybe it’s not impossible to do up close. Maybe you don’t need to go away to change. Maybe you can find the confidence to change right here, right now. Maybe you can blow it all up or burn it all down in your own backyard.
This claiming of your identity might be small: maybe you love sushi but have never shared that with your family. So maybe you convince your meat-and-potatoes parents to order sushi takeout. It might blow their minds. And really, who gives a crap if they don’t like it, or make fun of it—“You want me to eat raw fish? Are you crazy?” “Yes, Dad, millions of people do it every day.”—they can have meat and potatoes tomorrow. And more importantly, they’ll know you like sushi. And that’s part of who you are.
Learning to rewrite and rework your own story up close is important. It’s a survival technique. We don’t always have the luxury of movement, and sometimes even our personal lives can feel claustrophobic. It’s like in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 when Uma Thurman’s character questions her teacher Pai Mei when he tells her she must practice delivering a board-breaking punch from just inches away, unable to pull her arm back. This later comes in handy when she’s buried alive in a coffin and, with no room for a regular punch, uses the up-close board-breaking technique to escape the deadly confines and dig her way out to freedom.
The pandemic has us all a little bit buried alive right now and, like Thurman’s character, remaking ourselves up close is how we can coffin-punch ourselves out of our pandemic state and drag ourselves back up the surface. (Is this metaphor still good? Not sure! Sticking with it.)
We don’t all have Pai Mei to teach us how, but we can take a good, hard look at ourselves. It might be ugly. It might mean looking at some icky truths. No one likes to look up close, just like no one really likes those drugstore mirrors that turn every pore in your face into a looming caldera. It’s much easier to look at yourself from far away, when you’re vacationing or living in another place you don’t associate with your present identity.
But you know what? Sometimes you just gotta look.
Trying to create change so close to home may feel dangerous—like chipping away at a statue without eye protection. But I think it’s possible. What parts of your life would you like to destroy? What outlook would you like to have? What community do you want to be a part of? What can you control? How might you get out of your routine and on that path to change?
It doesn’t matter if “getting on the path” has all the awkwardness of you bursting out of the woods and tripping face-first onto the gravel in front of a nice family and their children. Just brush yourself off, ignore the stares, take the twigs out of your hair, and start bringing yourself elsewhere.
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