Why You Should Never Stop Wanting To Escape

I’m not sure how old I was – seven or eight, maybe – when my Grandmother caught my cousin and I prying the wood paneling off the wall in one of her house’s bedrooms using the plastic ketchup and mustard bottles from a grocery store playset we had. I can count on one hand the number of times I remember her actually becoming visibly angry with any of her grandkids, and that was one of them.

But we hadn’t intended to be destructive. We were searching for a secret passage. The house was pretty old – my Mom had grown up in it – and so, according to the logic of kids’ fantasy and detective media, it had secret passages and we were going to find them, little ears to the walls, palming and knocking softly like I must have seen someone do in a movie. My cousin was too young to do much other than completely believe my logic, that the slightly loose piece of paneling we discovered in that particular bedroom had to conceal a door.

I’m not entirely sure what I hoped it’d be a door to. Crawlspaces to enable professional espionage against our family? Dark, quiet passages to underworld chasms, mysterious cities, foreign tombs laden with treasure or haunted by royal ghosts? Long-concealed empire drawing rooms somehow forgotten as part of the infrastructure of the house? It didn’t really matter, as any of these outcomes were implied in ‘secret passage.’ We’d figure it out when we found it.

I was always doing things like that. Crawling, fingers outstretched, eyes shut, for the backs of closets, feeling deterred – but never defeated – should my fingertips brush cool plaster and not the foreign foliage of another realm. Searching inside of flowers for miniature cities, listening to trees in case one of them was a prince from another world, transformed by a curse. Whispering at the moon in the hopes of stumbling upon an incantation – all of it, a continuous (often inspiring, often lonesome) search for ways to go elsewhere.

Entertainment media aimed at children has always promised that escape. Fairy tales illuminate a world that exists beyond what the eye can see, a realm of magic available to one special person with the right sort of heart. Unicorns, the legends go, only appear for the pure. The hero chosen to save the kingdom is always one unlikely, often luck and love-starved child. Even modern blockbuster movies about kids getting lost in the big city, of babysitting nights gone awry, about young detectives, have helped contribute to an entire culture aimed at teaching kids to dream of something better than ‘all there is,’ of powers undiscovered, a way out of the mundane.

Imagination is generally the realm of children. Young people have not yet learned the world is boring and hard, and so learning to create those psychic buffer zones, how to be their own companion, how to seek escape, is a skill foundation that must be laid early.

Even the grown-ups who, as the stereotype goes, tell kids to get their heads out of the clouds, to stop talking to people that aren’t there, are, intentionally or otherwise, strengthening the dreamer’s urge that will help them be great creators and great innovators as adults, in the face of a society that loves to quash the tall poppy with prescribed social norms, to fling up bureaucratic roadblocks, to declare: ‘Impossible.’

A resilient spine of imagination is what drives human beings to strive for impossible things – like dream of space travel, of cures for incurable disease, of world peace. Technology, interaction and even the development  of architecture and vehicle design marches onward in no small part because imaginative kids grow up into ambitious adults who really, really want to actualize the shiny adventures of the science fiction books they love – flying cars, sentient robots, space needles and all.

Because ‘wanting out’ is a quintessential part of the adult life. All people need to believe there is a way to escape normalcy and the status quo. If we all believed there was nothing to do but accept reality, life would be intolerable. We could not progress.

Most important about the things we dreamed as children is that there was never any real danger. A secret passage walled into an old house is far more likely to contain a corpse than a luminous parallel universe, but I never thought about that. Even if as a kid you did manage to build a functioning time machine so that you could visit the age of the dinosaurs, you never stopped to think that you might become the meal of some vicious primordial monster.

We sought portals to new lands without worrying that we might end up their permanent prisoner. Any potential threat – black knights, malfunctioning robots, dragons and ghosts – only served to promise us the chance to be heroic. Dreamer-children learned to consider possibilities with endless wellsprings of excitement and ambition, not fear.

The worst in humanity arises from the chasm between the real world and our dreams. We are liable to become inert, we become avoidant, we become addicts, or we self-sabotage because of the cruelty of the real, and the crushing lesson that there is only a certain extent to which we will ever subvert it.

But survival and great success are born from the refusal to accept boundaries, though it may be strange to conceive of our greatest creative endeavors as direct responses to the fact that life sucks. Or to think that the most impressive thing any individual will ever accomplish is born out of the friction between what we want to be and what we are.  That’s what we were learning when playing imagination games as children – how to want a way out, always, from the world we were given.

And the worse that world was, the more we wanted that escape. That’s why the greatest strides in this world are often made by the people who’ve suffered most – and why you never meet anyone interesting who says they had a great time in high school. TC mark

image – Labyrinth

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  • http://www.facebook.com/TomSmizzle Tom Smith

    Haha, the very last line was perfect.
    Great article!

  • Halo_Override

    I still have those dreams in which I find a secret door or passage in one of my childhood homes. And it's never entirely new, it's always “oh yeah, how did I forgot for so long that this was here?”

    I think what you've described is why some of us, as grown-ups, fetishize making survival strategies and arranging theoretical bug0ut bags for a zombie apocalypse. It's a way of reconnecting with the part of ourselves that still craves a dramatic sense of purpose and a life of adventure, even though we realistically know it would be not so much fun if it actually happened.

    On a totally unrelated note, I've learned that hand-cranked radios and LED flashlights that basically last forever are surprisingly affordable.

    • http://www.facebook.com/madeline.criswell Madeline Criswell

      “I think what you've described is why some of us, as grown-ups, fetishize making survival strategies and arranging theoretical bug0ut bags for a zombie apocalypse. It's a way of reconnecting with the part of ourselves that still craves a dramatic sense of purpose and a life of adventure, even though we realistically know it would be not so much fun if it actually happened.”

      That paragraph right there was really what I have been grasping at for some time to understand, thanks, you helped me work it out in my own head :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000135790951 Matt Schultz

    rad. i agree completely.

  • YO

    the first thing for the writer of a kids book to figure out: how to get the parents out of the way? in the most successful kid's books, they're just killed off.

  • nostalgia

    One of the best articles I've read on Thoughtcatalog so far!

  • RamonaCC

    Though I felt a bit sad reading this because I fear I've lost some of that imagination that comes so easy as a child, I also feel really inspired, specifically because of lines like this one: “Or to think that the most impressive thing any individual will ever accomplish is born out of the friction between what we want to be and what we are.”

    Really great.

  • Natalie

    Really really good, Leigh.

    • http://www.facebook.com/wingedthing Leigh Alexander

      thanks

  • http://www.twodifficultgirls.blogspot.com TDG

    “But survival and great success are born from the refusal to accept boundaries, though it may be strange to conceive of our greatest creative endeavors as direct responses to the fact that life sucks.”

    Totally agree! So sad that as we grow up, we rapidly unlearn our thrill-seeking tendencies and settle for the comfort of the mundane.

  • Matt

    This reminded me of the time my brother, sister and me decided we were going to attempt something we'd seen on Star Trek growing up in the 70's. I might add I am not a Trekkie.

    In the episode Spock et al used a pentagram to travel to other dimensions. All very creepy and to our minds utterly plausible. After all our parents had hippy friends who seemed to be experimenting with things like this all the time. Why shouldn't an 8 year old, a 6 year old and a five year old give it a go?

    The disappointment at not finding ourselves teleported from our house into other worlds was acute. But for a while after we thought was that somehow we were doing it wrong. We moved on to sliding our sister (the smallest) down three flights of stairs in a suitcase. She thought she was going into space. Poor kid. Christ knows what my mother thought when she found the huge paper pentagram in the bedroom.

    Good article by the way.

  • Jeff Parker

    It's so great to read something inspirational that isn't pandering. Leigh Alexander, you're the reason I started coming to this site, and this article proves why!

  • http://dianamn.tumblr.com diana

    Brilliant.

  • http://twitter.com/kyleangeletti Kyle Angeletti

    well said. still waiting for an adequate replacement for Calvin & Hobbes.

  • http://exitclov.tumblr.com exitclov

    ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL ME THERE IS NO WITCH MOUNTAIN?!

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