On feeling trapped: the many meanings of freedom

In July, Brian and I had the questionable luck of arriving in London fifteen minutes before the polls closed for the Brexit vote. Having plenty of information on the political situations in Europe, the rise of the populist right and the vote itself, I said “Hey, do you guys want to look at the news? Are you worried? It’s a close race isn’t it?”

“Oh no,” our friends said, “just some British politicking. Nothing to fret about, it’ll never pass.”

The past few months I’ve been haunted by the memory of that morning. We woke up and our friend greeted us with a grim expression: “So, I’m really sorry, but the world went to hell while you were sleeping. Brexit passed and no one knows what’s going to happen now. Maybe you should go hit an ATM.” In a state of disbelief, we walked around a London deeply in shock. Strangers on the street came up to us and asked, “was it you? Did you vote for this?” It was like no one could look each other in the eye. Everyone had this thousand mile stare, like they woke up in a terrible trip they couldn’t understand. There was an eerie radio silence from leadership and a massive vacuum as everyone stepped out of the way of this grenade that had the pin pulled. Almost instantly, campaign promises were revealed as falsehoods. Whoops. Too late now. Theresa May took leadership, frankly, because no one else wanted the hot potato. Then she celebrated by appointing Boris Johnson (Britain’s Bush-Trump combo who heavily promoted Brexit and was immediately stabbed in the back by his own party) head of Foreign Affairs.

That day I had a premonition. The more I studied what had gone wrong (a vast underestimating of a heavily uneducated rural population who had completely missed out of the benefits of globalization, a nationalistic movement with liberal interpretation of “facts”) the more I saw the echoes happening in my own country. Even in Britain during Brexit, people kept asking “what’s going on over there? You’re not voting for Trump are you?”

And then it happened.

And here we are, about 50% of the country, a much larger percentage of the younger crowd (also like Brexit) feeling like we woke up in a different country than we did yesterday.

There are innumerable psychological benefits to traveling. Travel makes you more self-reliant, more empathetic, more culturally aware. Travel makes you more interested and understanding of world affairs and less susceptible to media biases. Travel makes you more resilient, flexible, more confident and mindful. But travel has less lofty benefits as well.

When a situation is poor, whether it’s a relationship, a job, a living situation, a terrible boss, or grief over the loss of a loved one, feeling trapped can make an enormous difference in how you cope. It can make you helpless, hopeless, and make it hard to distance yourself from the destructive emotions you feel. When you feel terrible, sometimes it’s hard to imagine a time when you’ve ever felt good, or imagine that you might feel better. While it’s true that much of our emotional toolkit we carry with us (which is why so many people who go on “vacation” can never seem to relax) being in a new and different location can give us something else to think about, feel like a fresh start, or just distract us from pain. While meditation is an excellent way to give yourself psychological distance, there is a very real component to physically removing ourselves from a situation.

Several times in my life when I felt intense despair, I literally couldn’t find peace until I left the country. Some may think of this as running away. I think of it as running towards.

Even temporary, nuisance things are easier to bear when you know you have a choice about staying in your location. How much easier does winter in a harsh New England climate seem when you have a trip to Miami scheduled in February? Even if your choice is not to go anywhere, even if when you leave it’s temporary, knowing you have the choice matters. And you have a choice. We all do.

Do you feel trapped? Has change of location ever helped you in crisis? What makes you feel stuck where you are, literally or figuratively? What’s the worst that could happen if you tried to leave? Tell me in the comments.