Dreaming of Time Away
I’ve been imagining a long trip for the past two years. Somewhere in Europe, for about a month or perhaps longer. No timetable or agenda apart from finding a nice place for lunch or a local market to pick up something to cook for dinner.
I’d have my car, packed with my toys (bicycle, slackline, hiking boots, wetsuit) and only the clothes I’d need squeezed around the sides. Or, perhaps, I’d have bought and converted a van by then and be living like Alex Honnold. I would have a tent, a stove and some rudimentary hiking equipment just in case a bivouac or camping escapade was on the cards. Maybe a surfboard strapped to the roof for added potential for fun and adventure.
Thoughts of this trip would often come to me during long shifts in bright fluorescently lit hospitals, or when trying to enjoy the weekend amongst the pressures of completing work administration that continually crept into spare time.
In my mind, it was termed a ‘holiday’, a ‘vacation’, or a ‘break’. A chance to take time away from ‘real’ life, to breathe a little easier, to remove the constant push and pull of pressures that a career brings. Money would be in the bank – I would be free from having to work on a daily basis. Instead, I’d be able to spend 24 hours a day doing something completely self-governed – reading, writing, eating, exploring. Or, not doing anything at all. Just being. Doing something I can’t describe now, because it would be new.
In many ways, the terms ‘break’ or ‘vacation’ are completely appropriate to describe this fantasy. This month-long trip is modern day escapism, fleeing to a place where I’m unknown, have no ties and can experience a more simple life. I’m vacating my space. I’m breaking away from the rhythm and responsibilities of my life at home.
Right now, I’m driving past a French Camping-Car Business named ‘Evasion’. Apparently they use a similar sentiment for their holidays, too!
Yup. I’m in France. I have vacated, have broken away and am evading, and have been doing so for two weeks. In Brittany, now to Fontainebleu and then to the Alpes. Especially trying to avoid Covid-19.
Breaking the Routine
Strangely, I’m finding the realities of taking a ‘holiday’ difficult.
This isn’t a complaint.
It’s just that I’ve found it harder to break myself into the holiday routine than I had expected. It’s almost that 5 years of secondary education, 2 years of sixth form, 6 years of medical school and 2 years of working as a doctor have taught me, with increasing emphasis, that spending a considerable portion of the day doing something productive or hard is an essential requirement for happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction. It’s hard to escape the striving mindset.
Things I’m finding hard: Not having a time to wake up in the morning. Not having to leave the house to go to work. Not having a schedule to keep me busy throughout the day, provided by my work, colleagues and patients. Not having set times for meals. Feeling that I’ve been lazy all day.
When I do ‘work’, I find it hard to stop without a defined ‘end point’. There’s no end to the textbook, no exam to pass or work shift to finish.
I don’t feel that I have ‘completed’ anything – and now I feel that I’m itching with unspent energy for productive things.
On one hand, perhaps my discomfort signals the ‘peak’ rested state that a holiday period aims to provide, that I’m so well slept, well fed and well rested enough that the fuel tank is exceeded and any extra energy is bursting out the edges. Ready to jump back into the rat-race. Withdrawing, even?
Or, perhaps, it’s because I feel I haven’t had this period of time since before school exams. To just learn how to ‘be’. Not having to chase the next goal or career milestone.
Holidays and Existential Crises
I hadn’t expected that a holiday would bring about an existential crisis but in hindsight it makes sense.
I reckon that lots of people feel this way when in a similar situation. Many of my cohort of doctors who have taken some proper time away from working probably feel strange when away from the routine of work. Or people who have been made redundant or are in between jobs. Or people like me who have actively taken time away from what brings home the bread. Those working from home due to Covid-19. Those who opt to design their own lives, work freelance or are their own boss.
In any case, this is something I’ve got to get used to during this FY3 year, or until I choose to move into a career more substantive. To preserve my sanity I’ve got to respect the principle that suffering through anxiety of what I should or could be doing is the complete antagonist of happiness.
So, what to do to cure this adjustment disorder?
I’ve got to suck it up.
Having the chance to go slow is a wonderful thing. We spend a lot of time pushing hard and going fast. I think that before trying to pick up speed again, it’s important to learn to be comfortable taking things slowly, and at a more deliberate pace. Some people call it ‘being grounded’, or being comfortable with spending time with just oneself in the present.
Gratitude and Slow Living
A frequent gratitude practice is a common method to stay grounded. Flipping the perspective from ‘what I should be doing and when’ (work, study, this literature review) to an appreciative mindset of ‘What am I doing right now this second’ is a simple way of easily stirring some feelings of gratitude.
In France, it might be noting the delicious produce in the markets, or a freshly warm and flaking pain au chocolat and aromatic coffee, or watching surfers ride crisp waves at La Torche. If you have these going for you then it’s undeniable that life must be pretty good – this realisation makes it much easier to snap out of a dissatisfied funk of ‘I could and should be…’
If you don’t have these luxuries, you might be reminded of the reassuring simplicity of things by the warmth of sun or the sound of rain, of appetite or the feeling of aching muscles after exercise. Small sensuous hooks to keep us fastened onto the ground.
Life might not actually be slower when you take on the challenge of slow living. You don’t walk at half speed nor shy away from descending mountains on bicycles or surfing. Life just feels slower when you consciously appreciate the events that happen – feeling the road under the tyres on every turn, rather than thinking about the café stop at the end.
So that’s what I’ll do when I feel like an imposter on holiday – smell the roses – to re-educate and remind myself that life is importantly lived now, by me, not in a future project or when I’m at work in a hospital.
A gratitude practice might be the key to become more grounded and to reclaim ownership over how we feel and live on a fundamental level. Hopefully we’ll be better for having learned to rest properly, then we can start to push the accelerator to build the pace again.
Gratitude and slow living. These are what holidays are for.