The Snare of Escapism

Many things in modern life have an epicurean appeal, a flare that even the most ascetic among us may be hard done by to resist. While it is certainly true that a contemporary, urbanised life demands much of us, sometimes to the point of inducing breakage, this same life also affords us much time to indulge in activities and offerings that were proscribed to our agrarian forebearers. The homestead, with its round-the-clock duties and chores, akin to the care of an infant that a parent must provide, was no friend to a life of leisure and indulgence. But to the extent that some of us modern humans, presently, take our penchants for self-satisfaction is an overshoot into the territory of decadence and self-harm, unwitting as it may be.

All cultures have their rites, rituals and ceremonies in celebration of things, from the ordinary to the auspicious. One common event among some of the most lasting and prosperous cultures was, and remains, the celebration of the harvest at the end of the growing season. This was a time of merriment and appreciation for the bounty reaped from the collective efforts of all those in the community. Celebrations could include anything from the sharing and distribution of annual crops, the sharing of fermented drinks, folk dance, theatre and song, and fireworks displays. When one considers the many arduous forms of work involved in farming, it only makes sense that people would rejoice at its end-stage.

Juxtapose this rustic lifestyle to the modern work week — with its oft life-force pilfering stresses — and you can, perhaps with little cajoling, begin to see that although the modern version allows for a more variegated selection of activities, hobbies, and experiences, it also happens to be more fractionated, more extreme. For those beholden to drab forms of work in order to make ends meet, the end of the work day, or more gratifyingly the end of the work week signals the end of growing season, and the arrival of the proverbial harvest. Celebrations abound, the throngs of drone-like worker bees shed their workday skins, and rebirth themselves into the attire, and attitude, of enjoyment and entertainment. Although this mass transition may appear, at least ostensibly, to be similar to the metamorphosis that would occur during an agrarian harvest festival, there is a crucial difference. The former version was a genuine celebration of life’s work, a ceremonious collective tribute to the importance of work performed in support of an enduring life. The modern, metropolitan version, conversely, is a distraction from the drudgery of life; an escapist endeavour.

These seemingly dichotomous scenes are not without overlap. One could easily reason that there were (and still are) escapist activities in more traditional societies, and even more certainly in ancient civilisations. Take, for instance, the Piraha people of the Brazilian interior. A hierarchical, hunter-gatherer society, the Piraha forage for nuts and seeds, and barter for canoes that aid them in fishing. Understandably, these are a people who do not really have the free-time for gratuitous recreation. While the Piraha generally do not pursue it, they sporadically indulge themselves in the consumption of brew, which they refer to as ‘fire-water.’

In eighteenth century China and India, under the tyranny and repression of the British regency, peasants and noblemen alike would scurry to the seedy opium dens, then a ubiquitous, albeit disreputable, feature of the neighbourhood, comparable in banality to a Starbucks; perhaps, also, similar in the manner in which the common angst is quelled by the preparations offered by both. The opiate induced voyages undertaken by its patrons were undoubtedly a means of transient escape from the destitution of indigence or aristocratic mundaneness.

In the ancient Roman empire, entire crowds of imperial subjects and the less numerable nobility who ruled over them would flock, or be carried, to the Colosseum to be entertained by the sunder of prisoners and slaves (really, one and the same). If you’ve ever spectated a semi-pro hockey league game, a similar sort of thrill has likely, seductively, revealed itself to you.

And it requires very little in the way of an exposition to see that the local watering hole has been a feature enduring for time immemorial, surviving the booms and busts — in fact, invariably booming during a bust — of various civilisations, ancient and modern.

New day, old world.

What is the common thread that weaves itself through all these unique, often disparate, scenarios? Iniquities in their social, moral, and spiritual forms are a source of resentment, which, if left to fester can egress disastrously.

Mental illness has always been a platitude in civilisation, and at probably no time since its emergence approximately ten thousand years prior has this been more apparent. A far cry from the medieval-era witch hunts that immolated innumerable helpless victims suffering from various mental diseases, our modern psychiatric institutions have taken a more enlightened approach to evaluation and treatment. Our post-industrial, technological feats coupled with the advent of petrochemical potions have provided us with such marvels as ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), trans-cranial lobotomies, and suicide-inducing psychotropic medications. Yet, evidently, mental illness is a worsening sprawl within the industrialised, civilised world. I know what you’re thinking, and no, this increase isn’t simply a result of a widening array of diagnoses and diagnostic criteria, as purveyed by that manifesto of mental afflictions, the DSM.

What is always witnessed and seldom decried time and again, is that concomitant with the arrival and spread of civilisation is the burgeoning of neuroses and psychoses. Civilisation makes us insane. It kills us degenerately. And as Lierre Keith, in her succinct and splendidly simple manner describes, it also kills off so much more than just our collective human spirit. With the population swell that accompanies civilisation, there is also an invariable spike in hunger. To provide fodder for all those bodies, entire self-sustaining ecosystems must be cleared away to make room for the fecund farmland. But the fertility of our earth, just like that of a human, is not infinite. Farming requires the pillaging of topsoil, and this inevitably produces dry rock that historically could not be farmed. With our contemporary innovations, however, we can transform even the most inhospitable land into a greenhouse. Alternatively, entire forests can be, and are simply logged away or sacrificially set ablaze to accommodate the industrial mega farms that feed us. The marauding of the earth is a grim allegory for how our spirits are culled as we refine ourselves into advanced beings.

There are those who will argue that illness alleviating measures are needed in order for a modern society to endure. With the advancing of our technology, our ailments also advance. This latter advancement, however, serves as a gauge of just how morbid our developed societies and individual lives truly are. Dr. Weston A. Price in his book Nutrition and physical degeneration showed us that the most industrialised, civilised societies are also the most sickly, both physically and psychically. When you’ve been so far removed from how you evolved (or were created) to live and function, you may certainly adapt, but those adaptations come at a cost. That cost is the acquiescence of our holistic agency and sovereignty. We become the wards of the very systems and structures that rule over and ensnare us. It’s these very same institutions that then instruct us on how to remediate and resolve our challenges, both the diagnosed and the obscure.

Create the problem, control the response, offer up the solution. This Hegelian dialectic seems to be the only self-sustaining element of the civilised world. All else appears ephemeral.

What if there were a Zen-like middle path, a roadway that allowed one to be able to take mini-trips away from a bleak or stressful reality, without a full-scale departure, but with an enriching yield? Terence McKenna was a biologist and researcher who studied and took Ayahuasca, the Amazonian psychedelic used ceremoniously by native shamans. Through his experimentation, both personal and empirical, he came to regard Ayahuasca and other psychedelics (especially psilocybin fungi, or magic mushrooms), as especially salubrious for humans. These substances not only tipped, towards a spiritually enriching tilt, the psychic states of people, but were also responsible for their advent in the evolutionary timeline. In other words, drugs made us humans who we are today. Without them, we may never have developed the colossal cognitive and even physical faculties we possess.

It’s both placating and motivating to think that psychedelic substances, at least the natural ones, may have played the critical role in the watershed of our evolutionary history. It’s heart-wrenching, however, to think that we may be squandering nature’s bounty, and our own relationships to it by misusing it to drown out our civilisational grievances.

Escapism, both in the long and short ranges, is a disservice to most. It disempowers and distracts us. Whether by amassing ourselves in the pews of affluent ministries, congregating in dives, staring into a screen that programs us, or using recreational drugs masochistically, we do ourselves no favours by way of self-awareness and shared knowledge. What we do, on the contrary, is siphon off our power to the already mega-powerful. This, by definition, is servitude. Disservice to self and our kin, and service to and for the master-class. In the end, we haven’t escaped anything; we’ve only entrapped ourselves ever deeper.

There may certainly come a time when we, both as individuals and as a collective, become roused from our trance-like lull, and reclaim and restore our natural inheritances. But until then we, sapien homo, will continue to take to remedying our maladies in all manners of action and inaction. It starts with a thought. The next time you’re thinking of binging on a Netflix series, or a bag of chips, or both together, or of blowing a car payment’s worth of cash on a night of alcohol/drug induced stupor, think also about who you’re serving.

Daniel Choudhury is a dreamer, writer, healer, and self-affirmed vagabond. He is especially interested in matters of cognitive and psychological deprogramming, nutrition and health, and culture re-creation. Read other articles by Daniel.