Yesterday, I saw Beauty and the Beast, (don’t worry, there’s no spoilers) and as much as I loved it I couldn’t help but realise how much of an escapist experience it was for me. I was having a particularly terrible day, mainly because I slept poorly and had a headache, as well as not eating enough which resulted in feeling sick. It’s a dynamic duo of feeling gross (Please don’t take this as a personal pity party, though, it’s simply to emphasise my point). However, when I had made my way into the theatre and was munching on popcorn I was beginning to feel better, grinning widely as the classic Disney castle-sweep intro played. Physically I was feeling better, having treated the symptoms with food and medicine, but my mind was still stressed and overwhelmed, so why did I feel so at ease as soon as this ‘tale as old as time’ began? Escapism.
Over the last year, I have realised that my love for Disney animations is not only because they tell a great story, but because I can escape into their world for just a little while and not have to worry about my own life. Quite bizarre, I know, but when I am drawn into a world where I see incredible stories with happy endings and tales of heroism it is easy to forget, and easy to engage with characters that are built to either be likable or villainized. Actual content aside, I’m becoming more aware all the time of what this means for me. Sometimes I will genuinely just enjoy a movie, which is great, but to try and run from my troubles by escaping into a land of make-believe takes my engagement with media to a whole new level, and I don’t think I am alone in this.
I know very few people nowadays who aren’t on social media, or don’t watch movies, or don’t follow youtubers who put their life online for folks to ogle over. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to go on a media bash here. I want to emphasise why we continue to run to these things. We have prepared for us a bevy of information and people who have often worked very hard to present a world for us that looks picture perfect. We have a wide range of genres that appeal to many people’s differing world views and present ideas that are highly attractive and desirable, but at the same time are entirely subjective. For instance, many westerners will understand the ideals portrayed in a Bollywood film somewhat differently from those whom it is truly intended to appeal to. Another highly subjective example is the many cultural ideals of ‘beauty’; every culture has a social expectation, often portrayed through media, that drives the definition of beautiful, and these cultural views can be quite different. Time is also a factor in this. The prevailing popular idea of beauty in the middle ages was girth and weight, as it denoted wealth and prosperity if you had the luxury of eating all day. Go figure.
So why do we continue to ogle over, say, perfectly crafted Instagram accounts, or flawless movie love stories? Escapism. We search and we look for someone to show us what ‘good’ looks like, what ‘perfect’ looks like, what ‘happy’ looks like. This searching is not productive, though. It is simply a mask to hide the pain that we feel, and an attempt to cover the issues we need to deal with, whether we recognise them or not. And the reality of our world is that it is so, so easy to get lost in other worlds and never have to return to the problems that we encounter in our real worlds.
This escapism is dangerous, though. It can damage us in incredibly damning ways. When we take in so much of these perfect worlds we begin to expect our life to play out in the same manner, and when it doesn’t we begin to recluse more and more into our ideal world, where everything always turns out ok. It’s a vicious cycle that turns our worlds into an expectation of the extraordinary, and leaves us totally unequipped to communicate, deal with conflict and live with those who share different views to us.
Living in the Downtown East Side, it is easy to see the extremes that living like this can lead to: I live alongside people whose lives have been built around a different type of escapism. Drugs and alcohol are easy to spot, simply because the symptoms of users escaping their pain are plain and often abrasive. There is also a monetary cost for services that help people who engage these methods of escapism, from hospitals and treatment to mental health and counselling, which makes it easy to practically count how visceral this type of escapism is. When our lives begin to exist in an alternate reality, in a state of escapism, this is what we call addiction. So, by this definition, I could be addicted to Disney movies, and that is entirely possible, because if I get to a point at which I choose to live in their worlds more than mine, teaching myself to expect happily ever after and fairy-tale justice, then I am not longer enjoying it as entertainment, but am living a lie.
Problem is that it is all too easy to run to what we find comfortable and easy, rather than confront the tough stuff. That which we aim to escape, however, only builds rifts as we turn away. There is a beautifully sad song by ‘Casting Crowns’ called ‘House of their Dreams’, which always makes me cry because it is so true: A song about how a family lives ‘all alone together’, with each of them running to fill the void of genuine love with their own escapisms.
It is painful to love; it’s a sacrifice. Jesus exemplified that, and even said “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends” – John 15:13. And this doesn’t mean just to die. It means to live sacrificially, to love sacrificially with your life. It means not escaping that which is hard, but embracing the pain and struggle to forge beauty from ashes. Here’s ‘House of their Dreams’.
Grace and Peace