Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Vacation

Vacation—it’s a common yearly reality. We pack up the luggage, load up the vehicle, and journey to some distant place to spend several days to be rejuvenated for the coming months.

Often, we think of a vacation as a more extravagant form of escape from the daily routines of ordinary life. Life at home is frustrating, tedious, and perhaps even painful. TV, video games, and fantasy novels no longer suffice. It’s time to run away before we collapse under the burden.

I recognize this temptation in myself, but my experience of vacation this year, more than affording me an escape from my life, has taught me some important and ultimately, refreshing spiritual lessons.

Firstly, I have learned the elementary lesson that people don’t really change from place to place. Traveling to England has been a significant shift in many respects. The geography and culture are different. And though the language is fundamentally similar, British usage is different enough to be awkward.

And yet, despite this strangeness, people here struggle with the same fundamental realities as they do in Canada. They live with economic uncertainty. They pay bills. They save money. They visit their elderly parents, or baby-sit their grandchildren. They take their siblings out for a birthday supper.

This fact of life would seem obvious, but I tend to be slow on the uptake. For some reason, I have tended to assume that people in different places and cultures really are different people, among whom I can find some kind of reprieve from the “normal” human beings back home.

This vacation, however, has shown me that if you spend any length of time in a foreign place, you will soon discover that people there are just as irritating and lovable, complicated and straightforward as they were where you came from. To put it simply, there are no greener pastures, no real escapes from the challenges of being part of the human race.

Secondly, I have learned that wherever you go, you always bring yourself. If you were discontented and unhappy in Cranbrook, chances are you will be discontented and unhappy in England (or wherever). Your exotic activities may conceal the fact for a while, and if you have enough money, you may well maintain the illusion for the entire vacation. However, in the quieter moments, you will soon discover that the person who goes about their daily business at, say, the Salvation Army every week, is still yearning for the same deeper fulfillment, even if he is thousands of miles away, watching a performance of Macbeth on the lawn of Bodiam Castle.

In other words, vacation cannot be an escape from ourselves any more than it can be an escape from other people. Rather than using time away as a psychological anaesthetic for our personal pains, we might perhaps use it as a magnifying lens through which we can see our hearts more clearly.

In foreign environments, we are likely to be more uncertain, less sure of ourselves, and more likely to resort to behaviour that is closer to our true nature. This is not a bad thing, and it can really help us refocus on those aspects of our personality that may need a little more work during the rest of the year.

This brings me to my final lesson: there is no vacation from the spiritual life. If you are a churchgoer like me, you may be tempted to think of vacation as an opportunity to sleep in on Sunday morning. This may work for you, but I have found it costs more than it is worth. In a new and strange place, I need God’s Presence more than ever if I am not to lose my sense of lasting peace and security.

Home has a way of diminishing our need for God. Driving our own vehicle (on the right side of the road), sleeping in our own bed, performing our familiar routines and rituals, we can easily forget that His hands uphold our world. In a faraway land, however, where nothing is quite so dependable, we have the opportunity to discover again what the Apostle Peter learned when he stood on the stormy seas and beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Far from being a time to set church and prayer aside, vacation is a way to refocus our spiritual lives and get a new grip on our relationship with God. As inconvenient or difficult as it may be to find a church to attend or pray in a strange context, the sacrifices we make in doing so will stretch and grow us in ways that are just not possible in the comforts of our home turf.

You may have heard of the Geographic Cure. I see it too frequently: a person moves to escape from whatever difficulties they may be facing in their current location. In some cases, a shift of geography can be helpful (for instance, when someone is fleeing an abusive relationship), but many other cases, the Geographic Cure is pure snake oil. In the end, people find that wherever they go, there they are and there is everyone else. Disillusion and despair soon follow.

If you are inclined to use your vacation this year as a temporary Geographic Cure, let me suggest that you instead use the time to revisit your life and revitalize it with a richer, deeper awareness of God, yourself, and others. The worst part of most vacations is coming home, but here is an alternative: coming home with joy, revitalized, refreshed, and ready for new adventures in the everyday.

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