The Need for Escape

The sense of being trapped may be a universal experience. Think of the small child who tries to wrestle out of his parent’s protective arms. The teen who hates curfew. The high school grad who can’t wait to leave home.

Other examples come to mind:

  • The suffocating boyfriend from whom you must free yourself.
  • The hated boss.
  • The stifling career.
  • The moribund marriage.
  • A restrictive religion and its too many rules.

Why are we so offended by the stickiness of things, of being like a fly on flypaper? Why do fences shout “Jump”? What is it about walls that beg us to climb, even as recreation?

  • Our ancient ancestors, the hunters and gatherers, needed to keep moving to find food and shelter. They profited by sensing and staying away from those animals and humans who menaced them. We inherited their survival tendencies. The complacent and trusting souls who acted otherwise and perished didn’t pass on their genes.
  • The instinctive man inside of us habituates quickly: he gets used to things, becomes restless, gets bored. Dissatisfaction is built into our nature, the better to thrive and survive. Were we satisfied by a single meal, with no recurring hunger, we’d starve. If sex so “blissed-out” cave-dwellers after one or two couplings, you and I would not exist.
  • The passage of time creates urgency. We don’t lead infinite lives. Want to be an Olympic star? Don’t wait until 30 to start practicing. The desire for love, too, means you must dive into the swim while your sparkle still can catch the eye of another aquatic creature.

The grass always being greener, where to? When? The five-year-old doesn’t run away because he can’t make a life on his own. The abused spouse with the ground-to-bits self-image holds her hopeless spot for fear worse awaits her elsewhere. The dissatisfied employee stays put in an economic depression. We all know out-of-love couples who remain married for the children, the worry of being vilified by co-religionists, and the thought of owning one dollar, where they used to count two.

We sometimes stay when we should escape and leave when we should hesitate. I’ve done both. How do you tell whether flight is best or portends even worse? A few things to consider:

  • Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman states, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”
  • Psychologists remind us that experiences, not things, have more lasting value internally and are more positively remembered than buying one more material object.
  • We cannot escape ourselves entirely. One’s innate temperament makes a significant contribution to happiness.
  • What we choose to focus on and whether we set impossible goals also factor into our sense of satisfaction. These are within our control. The long-term practice of mindfulness meditation has been associated with happiness, as well.
  • Research suggests Midwesterners who believe life will be better in California simply because of the weather tend to discover fair weather, like almost everything else, gets absorbed into the background. Not only climate, of course, is subject to habituation: think money, a new car, and today’s Christmas toy – the new delight turned stale; closeted before the weather warms. In the absence of other factors that might sustain a sense of well-being, we return to our set point, a basic and more or less enduring emotional state.
  • A richer neighbor will always be a happiness-wrecker if $$ are the measure you crave. Above $75,000 per year, your moment-to-moment, experienced well-being doesn’t improve much.
  • On the other hand, more money does tend to increase life satisfaction: your opinion of your life when you stop and think about it. And, up to about $75,000 yearly income, moment-to-moment happiness does increase.
  • Ask yourself what is your default tendency. If you tend to change jobs quickly, for example, then the next question becomes, how is that working? If you are prone to stasis when dissatisfied, the same question must be answered.
  • Are other lives involved in your decision? Maybe moving to a new house is best for you, but will it work for the spouse and kids?
  • Try to predict how you will feel about your choice in five months or five years. We tend to be poor at “affective forecasting,” the ability to gauge the emotional consequences of our actions. Still, an attempt is required.
  • A 2017 paper by Blanchflower and Oswald suggests we reach a low point to our happiness in midlife (around the early 50s). Thereafter, in general, we rebound – major life change or not.
  • You will do better to know where you are going, than just the situation from which you flee.
  • Those prone to anxiety and worry tend to exaggerate the danger of taking a risk. Judgment is questionable when angry. If you can, wait for a cool moment to make a decision.
  • Who are you? What are your values? How do these translate into life as it is lived?
  • Is there more than one way to achieve the result you want?
  • You might ask yourself whether your internal life requires attention. The externals – other people, your job, your living conditions – are less in your control.
  • If you expect utter and permanent transformation following your leap from a stuck place – well – you could be expecting too much. Remember, though, nothing in life is permanent and one can do worse than reach for the beguiling flowers still in bloom.

One last thought: we get no free lunch. Staying and going – except in extreme circumstances where life depends on it – each have a cost. Sometimes the decision is easy, often we struggle. Some doors remain open a while, others close with a rush. None of us get this right every time. Indeed, even knowing whether there is a “right” road can be challenging, since we only know with certainty the chosen path, while the other avenue lives in an idealized state within our imagination.

We’ve all read stories about the courage of people real or imagined, and the fixedness and quiet desperation of others. Those lives may provide guidance, but making choices presents a challenge unless you are an inveterate risk-taker or so frozen in place that no heat wave can de-ice and free you.

We each have only this one life. Try not to die with too many regrets.

The top image is the Vatican Museum Staircase as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next is James Jowers’s L.E. Side. These were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes a Space Escape Grunge Sign, created by Nicolas Raymond and available from:

19 thoughts on “The Need for Escape

  1. Your prose draws me in like a fine wine.
    I am in the middle of a dilemma like this right now: should I stay or should I go? I will keep my fingers crossed, try to ensure I don’t make a decision based on the wrong factors (transference), close my eyes, hold my breath and jump. Therapy shouldn’t be this hard, but it is, at least for me.
    I will reach a low point in my early 50s and things will rebound after that? So there is hope for me after all, whatever the outcome 😉
    I am going to track that article down!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, J. Much better to be likened to a fine wine, than a fine whine. 😉 Therapy is often hard, so I expect you are not alone in that. Good luck, whatever your decision.


  2. I loved reading this. I’ve recently ‘escaped’. I was teaching for the last 27 years & ‘thought’ I enjoyed my job. Maybe for some of that time I did, I’m not really sure anymore. I was talking to my counsellor & was complaining about how the education system now was not putting the children first & that I just didn’t approve. He asked me what I might do if I wasn’t a teacher. I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know. I went into teaching because that’s what I thought I ‘should’ do. He pushed me further & we talked about how I’d like to spend my days. I wanted to work outside where I could feel free, I wanted to work without having someone asking me to do something that was, in my opinion, pointless & I wanted to spend the day with my dog growing my vegetables. I am now doing precisely that!!! I have developed some of my land & have a small market garden. I’ve escaped!!! Counselling has allowed me to start thinking about me & what makes me happy. I’ve spent far too many years doing what ‘other’ people have wanted/ expected me to do, so now it’s my turn to chose!! I do not wish to die with new regrets!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Joanna. I’m happy to hear you made your escape and found a more satisfying life. You should be a model for those who hesitate. Brava!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a question to ask about one of your examples of things that people want to escape. This one is about the “suffocating boyfriend”. Every once in a while, a person (often a male) will become upset because one was told by someone that one loved, that one’s company was not desired anymore after a period of dating, and there would be no long-term relationship. At this point, the person would, in effect, threaten suicide if the relationship were to end. It has been my understanding for some time now, that it either is or has been, a standard procedure, psychologically or by custom, to advise the object of that person’s affection, to tell that person to go ahead and commit suicide because there will be no feelings of guilt once one is dead, and in any case the relationship is over. I would very much like to know your views on this particular course of action.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the provocative question, Joseph. People have been known to kill themselves when rejected. Some threaten as a ploy, but others are quite serious. I also expect that some of those who dispatch the former “significant other” would have guilt if he or she committed suicide. And yes, others might not. In matters of the heart we are all vulnerable, even if most of us wouldn’t take such an extreme action. Perhaps you are famiiiar with the great Euripides play, “Medea.” If not, it speaks to the most extreme possible action in the case of rejection, though it does not involve suicide.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “Try not to die with too many regrets.” Ha! good one! Sometimes you don’t know it’s a regret until years later but then you’ve made it into whatever it came to be and it all worked out some way or another…

    I liked this piece. You certainly summarized a variety of opportunities from which we might consider escaping. All those factors to assist in making that “to escape or not to escape” decision? That’s a nice summary too and I am certainly familiar with most of them. This was my favorite one: Try to predict how you will feel about your choice in five months or five years. But even that one fails as who knows how the future will really play out. Actually, maybe that one is my least favorite b/c we can only barely guess (albeit an educated guess perhaps) about the future.

    In the end, it’s all a bit of a gamble, heh? I think about these things WAY too much so, for me, the trick is to sit back and notice and maybe just not take it all so damn seriously.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    BTW, I’m going to be in downtown Chicago next month. I have four days there. What are the must sees/must dos that you would suggest? I definitely want to visit the Art Institute and I have read about the architectural tours that are offered. Other recommendations?
    I’m also looking for a place to enjoy Irish music since I’ve heard there is quite an Irish music scene in Chicago. Ideas? Thanks for any input you might have. When the trip was arranged, I thought you might be a resource for a lost Chicago tourist!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your are welcome, JT. Life is, as you say, a gamble. Lots of considerations, but, as you seem to suggest, there is also the way of the Buddhist: to give up attachments, which certainly limits one’s exposure to all the “slings and arrows,” not only “of outrageous fortune,” but the inherent qualities of life which, to their way of thinking, bring suffering regardless of the choices you make in the world of attachment to people and things. As to Chicago tourism, give me some time to think about it and I will contact you privately.


  5. “Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.” Fulton Oursler

    How true, especially as one gets older!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Life has its way with us, Brewdun, as the quote states. That said, I don’t think the regrets and fears Oursler offers us are the only way to live. What is more, engaging in life regardless of the dangers tends to put the things in one’s head to the side. Thanks for your comment and a quote I didn’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this insightful and informative post, Dr. Stein. Escaping an unhappy relationship, job, or lifestyle is never easy. For the sake of our survival, I endured two toxic work environments during the years I raised my sons alone in Brazil.

    When considering the life-changing move to the US, I involved my two sons in the decision-making process. Since adaptation to life in a new country would not be easy, we all had to be on board. Our success would depend on our unity of purpose.

    Life is one of continual change. Our ability to make the right choices determines our success or failure.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Such a great article. “We each have only this one life. Try not to die with too many regrets.” After a life of feeling this need to escape, to run, I’m at the point in my life now where I can question why I want to escape, what am I running from? Since practicing mindfulness, I’ve come to the point where I realize I am where I am, and that by being mindful of my thoughts, drives, and feelings, I can start to move towards what I really want and leave behind what’s no longer serving me, in order to build the life I want. But I don’t want to run. I don’t want to escape. I only want to keep moving forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great attitude, Rayne!


  9. This rich and insightful post has something to offer everyone; who hasn’t had to, at some point, decide to “stay or go”? In my experience, people have the hardest time deciding about relationships, marriage taking the lead. This makes sense with the complexities involved. As JT pointed out, your decision may not turn into a regret until years later—for example, the decision not to have children. Or maybe you realize that you should have married the love of your life but he is now dead. So even if one follows your sound advice for choosing, regret may still follow. What to do then? Have compassion for yourself. Ask what you can do to make things better…now. What can you learn from the regret? Can it be transformed into something else? You may feel it’s too late, you missed the boat. But the truth is, you still have a chance to make a good life remaining on the shore.


  10. If I have “something to offer everyone,” the big question is, how come I’m not President? (Maybe it helps to run for office). Seriously, I have no disagreement with your comment, Evelyn. There is no fool-proof way to live. Indeed, as we age, most well-adjusted people try to make the best of a shrinking portion of life’s stage, the area in which they now operate. Hard to say when to move off center stage, however. Is it better to keep performing until they drag you off? A very personal decision.


  11. good blog post . love it

    Liked by 1 person

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