Questioning the language of escape
Last week I went on a short trip to Boston to attend a wedding. I was excited about the trip for many reasons, including that I was travelling sans computer. I recently wrote about travelling without a camera, but the last time I left for the airport without my laptop in my backpack was… years ago. I can’t even remember. My entire professional life is attached to my computer; all my work, both paid and volunteer, happens on this lovely machine. I don’t own a television, so some of my brain-off time is also spent in front of this screen. Her name is Sylvia (her predecessors are Fiona and Robert). I often spend 12 hours a day with her, longer than I spend with any person in my life. So I was super excited to leave her behind for four days. The problem was that she, and all the work she holds, was still there when I came back.
The language of travel marketing talks about travel as an escape: from winter, from work, from the ordinary. But I think that paradigm just sets us up for major lifelag; it often takes way longer to settle back into your routines and “ordinary” life than it does to readjust to the time difference and the climate and the food and all the other physical and environmental markers of place change. It used to happen to me a lot when I first started travelling. I’d get home and be depressed for weeks. I couldn’t figure out why I felt sad instead of invigorated, why I often didn’t feel like talking about my travels, why I had panic attacks when I had to go back to school or work.
It changed when I started to travel purposefully and toward something, rather than travelling with the intent of making my life more interesting. That way, I came home with something to add to my life rather than feeling that my time away highlighted deficiencies in my regular life. Last time I went to China, for instance, I made a list of all the reasons I was going and everything I wanted to gain from my experience. And then I wrote down all the ways that my experience could fit into my life at home.
I don’t mean that we should dismiss the idea of travel as a welcome break from routine and stress, but I think there’s a huge, if subtle, difference between saying “I can’t wait to leave all this work behind” and “I can’t wait to sit on the beach and read and then swim in the ocean.” The former sets us up for disappointment, because unless you’re quitting your job and setting up a new life, that work will be there when you get back. The latter statement frames travel as a value-adding activity and focuses on what you’re going to gain from your trip. Sure, coming back to your desk after a beach vacation means no more beach and no more ocean, but the effects of your trip can stay with you.
Last week I forgot to focus on what I was travelling toward, and even though I had a fantastic trip, my first day back at work deflated me. I’ve been recovering from lifelag all week. Some travel letdown is inevitable, but full-on lifelag is avoidable.