Friday, September 27, 2013

On The Road Again...

So, tomorrow I'm leaving for my grandparents for a few days. Vacation is always refreshing, but it also brings that feeling of regret, that unwillingness to return to your life and haunts most people, I think. This disruption of our tranquility is never fun and I think it sort of takes away from our enjoyment of the vacation. Is there any Stoic advice that can help us stay with our vacation?

Do you suppose that you alone have had this? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. -Letter 28, Seneca

The above passage opens Seneca's letter 28, a letter that addresses our very question. Indeed, these opening remarks show that discontent during, and even after, our travels is nothing new.

We often take vacations as a means of escape. In fact, we often see this in adverts for travel agents and airlines: escape into paradise. We're made to feel that taking a vacation is enough to alleviate our woes. The reality, though, is far from this.

"Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels." -Socrates, quoted by Seneca

Often, we use travel as a means of leaving our lives. We often use the phrase "getting away" when we talk about it. "Oh, it'll be so nice to get away from it all." The problem is, as Socrates points out, is that your not really getting away from anything if you're coming along.

We tend to believe that our problems are external of ourselves. Our jobs sucks because it just does. Our lives are boring because nothing new is going on. But as the Stoics would point out, this really isn't the case. It isn't that our jobs suck, it's that we think our jobs suck. It isn't our lives are boring, we think it's boring. And that's the problem. Escaping work for a few days isn't going to change how you feel about work. Rather, it could make you feel even worse about it as you have to confront those feelings all over again. It's nice to put those feelings aside when you can, sure, but that's like moving clutter to another side of a room and thinking you've fix the issue. hurt yourself by your very unrest; for you are shaking up a sick man. -Letter 28, Seneca

Perhaps even stranger, we often find we have more problems with our lives during our travels. Why? Because we start comparing the rest of life with the (supposed) relaxation and joy of our vacation. We start asking why our lives can't be more like this. We may begin hating our lives instead of just being discontented. To use vacation as a means of ending our troubles, it seems, is a very dangerous thing to our tranquility.

But how does any of this help us? It almost seems travel is the wrong course of action. This isn't the suggestion, mind you. Seneca says that a wise man, though he could live a peaceful life even in a crowd, would still choose someplace quieter if he could. It would follow, I assume, that if he could get a quieter place, even for a little bit, he would.

What we want, then, is the ablilty to travel without having our peace of mind distrubed. This is easier said than done, as most things are, but there are a few things we can do that'll ease our minds.

Before you even plan the vacation, you should ask why you want it. Thinking that it'll spice up your life or make your problems melt away is only going to set you up for a worrisome trip. Instead of vacation, you need a change of vocation. If your life is missing something, perhaps you should spend some time reflecting on your life rather than trying to get away from it.

Of course, sometimes, we just a quiet place to get to so we can do just that: think about our lives. We often call these sort of trips "retreats". I think it's a wonderful term. Most of us have a hard time thinking clearly in the muck and mire of our own lives, to "retreat", as it were, into our thoughts. It's hard to make changes when you're stareing right at the problem sometimes. Getting away for a bit so you can look at the larger scope of everything isn't a bad idea, though to rely on it without cultivating this ability in everyday is a mistake.

So, let's say you decide to go on vacation to just enjoy yourself. Your life isn't missing anything, or at least nothing that you feel you're trying to avoid, and work isn't the problem. Yet there's often something else the plagues us in our attempts for enjoyment: perfection.

On a workday, we often run into minor annoyances. Things like traffic, spilt coffee, ect. -- these things often cause minor irks, but most of the time we accept them as par for the course. But when we're trying to get away?

Traffic becomes a personal attack. Spilt coffee becomes something time-consuming, taking minutes away from our time off. We often put more work into not working. Quality control isn't normally a exciting job to begin with.

We have to remember that we're not escaping from reality. Though we'd like it to, the universe isn't going to go any easier on us just because we're going off, but on the flip side, it also isn't going any harder on us. Traffic isn't usually worse than normal just because we're going off to vacation, we just think so.

It's key to remember the basics of Stoicism here: most things simply aren't in our control. This is great, mind you, because in remembering that, we free up a lot of worry and anger. Weather, car problems, all that jazz? Sure, they may put a hamper on some of your plans, but by remembering you can't control it, you might be able to ease your mind and find a way around the problem (unless you're already a better Stoic than I, which in that case, you'd already knew something like this could happen and already planned around it). So, step away from prefection you wouldn't demand from the rest of your life and move on.

Seneca writes that all that's really set in stone is our pasts, but this is great because we can visit it anytime we want to. Here's the thing, though: we need to fill that past up with something we'd like to revisit in the first place. Now, we can spend our time fretting about controlling every aspect of our lives, even the supposed enjoyment of our relaxation, or we can, in a way, let go of that micro-management that doesn't exist anyway and control our thoughts so that at least, if we aren't physically enjoying whatever's going on, we can at least carry with us the tranquil mindset that we can look back on and remind ourselves that, yes, we have gotten past these minor problems before and we can do it again.

Or, you know, we can just remember that vacations are for relaxing and just do that instead.

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