doing time

Confessions of a literature snob: Every summer during college, I spent months reading what I refer to as “fluffy romance novels.” Novels which pretty much always took place in another century. They involved long pretty dresses and people with titles. Absolutely necessary therapy after stuffing my head with Shakespeare and James Joyce for nine months. There was just a limit my brain could handle without overheating and spilling boiling British literature all over the place. Which would not be pretty, let me tell you. Particularlythe Joyce.

I had to escape.

Years later, I have not given up my lit-nerd ways by any means. Every morning when I walk/run/hobble for exercise, I listen to podcasts of—are you ready? The Tolkien Professor. It’s the highlight of my day. Laugh if you will. I don’t care—I live on a higher level. Or a completely fantasy one.

But a quote I heard one morning stopped me in my tracks, literally. When confronting public distrust of escapism, Tolkien asks, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”

And now you ask, what the heck does that mean? And what about it made you stop in the middle of the sidewalk, to the dismay of the bicyclist behind you?

Because he put into one sentence what almost every human being feels and cannot define. We would never tell a prisoner that his cell is all there is, and a world outside it, a world he once called home, doesn’t exist. If we did, he’d call us the crazy ones. Of course it exists, and of course he’d far rather be there than in the cell.

The nutcase is the person who would paint a rainbow in his cell, light vanilla cookie candles, and start singing, “It’s a small world after all.” (Of course, one could argue he wouldn’t even imagine rainbows if there was not a real other world out there, but that’s another theological question.)

I love this quote because it tells me that escapism, for the purpose of seeking something better, should not be laughed at. It shouldn’t be something we’re embarrassed to admit to. It’s the most normal human response to a world we sense is fundamentally flawed. It’s what any reasonable person who knew in her heart that home was somewhere else would do.

Notice I said for the purpose of seeking something better. Not just to retreat into your one little Unibomber cabin away from the world. (Though goodness knows I do want to do that sometimes, too.) We know there’s something better. After weekends like this one, especially, we sense that. Something is very wrong with the present prison cell. 

The question is, do we light the cookie candle and pretend it ain’t so, or do we recognize that we’re looking for something that is more real than what we see? Something that, maybe, has the power to break into this broken world and shine some of that fantastical beauty on it? And are we courageous enough to admit we need to escape toward it?

As another of my favorite writers put it, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis

What do you consider escape?

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