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the art of escapism

By Esme Fox

When I was little, I could often be found with eyes glazed over, my brain occupying space in some other dimension. People often used to ask me or my parents why I looked so sad. My dad would respond, “she’s not sad – she’s thinking.” He was right – I spent most of my childhood daydreaming, fantasizing about the novel I was currently devouring or envisioning the picture-perfect summer. I became so content in my daydreams that I would crave the moments I could spend alone, letting my mind wander without distractions.


As the years have passed, I no longer allow myself to simply exist with my thoughts. I walk around campus with airpods in, listening to a podcast or skipping through a new playlist en route to class. When I sit for meals, my friends and I discuss our days until we’ve finished our fourth box of Marketplace food. The constant stimulation, from social media to rigorous schoolwork and social interaction, has prevented me from feeling okay with sitting with my thoughts like I used to. Yet this hunger for moments of fantasy still manifests other forms, through a term I now understand as escapism.

Escapism: the tendency to seek distraction from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.


The definition perfectly describes the phenomenon that controls my life. One of my primary escapist vices is the app that many other young people across the world turn to for hours of mind numbing content – TikTok. At any free moment, I pull out my phone in search of my own personal dopamine supplier. My fingers automatically know where to find the app on my homescreen, a habit so ingrained into my daily routine that it’s become second nature. The perfectly crafted algorithm keeps my gaze locked in a tight grip for hours and hours on end. Yet my experience with TikTok is more than the content that initially attracts me to the app: whether it’s short funny clips, or fashion inspiration, or travel shots.


Occasionally, my For You Page veers into the toxic world of diet culture and “What I Eat in a Day” videos. Even when I mark them as “uninterested”, I am predisposed to linger a little longer given my history with body image issues. These creators and trends become built into the “escape” TikTok offers me. I can feel the app rewiring my brain in other concerning ways, as I scroll past a video that lasts longer than 30 seconds; every second seemingly more taxing than the last one. On weeks where I spend a greater amount of time doom scrolling on my For You Page, my mental health visibly declines: I experience increased brain fog, depressive thoughts, and lack of productivity. As I sit down to finish a paper or study for an exam, I find myself sucked back into TikTok’s black hole, and another two hours are lost to the algorithm once again.


In its seemingly innocent nature, TikTok represents the kind of escapism that does more harm than good. And yet, I can’t seem to delete the app or reduce my usage whatsoever. These escapist vices have persisted throughout time in the form of novels or theater–we’ve simply adapted them to fit the modern world of social media. And with the added built in algorithm, escapism has become more mesmerizing than ever.


While I often use TikTok as a lighthearted outlet to escape from Duke life, I turned to a more high-stakes method earlier this year. Midway through November, I began to write transfer applications. I found myself turning on my laptop and opening the document marked “nothing!!!!” at times when I felt down when I didn’t get invited to a dinner, or pregame, or experienced a searing pang of homesickness. The temporary pain from transitioning to a new place faded as I furiously typed supplements and personal statements. I allowed myself to envision a different Esmé, perhaps sunbathing after class in sunny California, bundled up as I barrel down a mountain in Vermont, or hopping on a train to downtown Chicago. I watched as these versions of reality unfolded through a rose-colored film reel in my mind’s eye.


The same words echoed in my head, propelling me through dreary days and lonely nights. If only I lived there, I’d be happier. If only I went to school there, I’d be happier.


As my time at Duke continued, I learned to accept all parts of my experience. I relished in the wonderful people I continued to meet, the tremendous resources academic and otherwise, and all Durham has to offer. 


I came to realize that I didn't actually want to go to school somewhere else. Writing these applications served as a coping mechanism, and honestly, a helpful one. The first semester pressure to find my people lifted, as I knew I could very well be in another place next year. It was also more healthy to write these applications while I physically stayed at Duke, instead of actually escaping by going home. Even still, investing in the prospect of transferring was unfair to the friends, professors, and aspects of Duke that I truly loved.

This semester, after experiencing a string of peaks and low points, I arrived at the following conclusion: there is no world where existence is tied neatly with a bow. Every version of reality includes both hardship and joy, and oftentimes, an unequal amount of each.

As much as we’d sometimes like to, there is no escaping escapism. It’s the same reason why college kids spend nights binge drinking into oblivion, a temporary chance to dissociate from the stress of classes and the real world. It’s the same reason why many people, myself included, concoct false realities to watch like television when we close our eyes before bed each night. To a certain degree, escapism is healthy. It is what motivates us to achieve our goals, to live in that perfect three bedroom apartment on Zillow someday. Yet it also holds us back. When we romanticize life in another place, relationship, or friend group, it prevents us from recognizing the people and elements that make living in our current reality worth it. Perhaps, more than worth it–beautiful.


With all that said, I’m not arguing for a life without the pleasure of escapism. I couldn’t live without Sally Rooney’s romance novels or Architectural Digest videos of celebrity homes. So, what is my humble suggestion as an antidote to harmful escapism? Gratitude. I’m sure we’ve all heard the most recent selfcare buzzword, and perhaps groaned at the suggestion to keep a gratitude journal. However, I’ve found that incorporating gratitude into my daily life, can both significantly improve my mental health and counteract the self indulgent nature of escapism. Gratitude can be displayed in the form of communicating my appreciation for a friend, or merely acknowledging the warmth of the sunshine on my way to class. To put it simply, we can all engage in our escapist vices while remaining in awe of our very existence right here, right now.

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