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01 July 2009

Talking about... holidays

Talking about... holidays

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Tony Watkins helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

Summer is here at last. We spent the cold, wet winter yearning for it to arrive, and now complain about the cold and wet ruining barbecues, camping trips and cricket matches. Then maybe we'll have the predicted heatwave, and we'll moan about that instead. But at least it's time for a break, which is what really matters.

Many of us crave holidays in the sun. In 2007, Brits took around 70 million overseas holidays, which is more than one each, and a third of those were to Spain. Thanks to the credit crunch, this year will be very different with many choosing to holiday in the UK, even remaining at home for a "staycation".

"What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home"

In his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton gives a primary reason why people travel: the desire for something different, for the exotic. This is why the average Brit has visited only 2 per cent of UK towns and cities, and why a Mamma Mia-inspired Greece appeals so strongly. De Botton suggests that we have this desire because we are dissatisfied with life as it is. "What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home," he writes.

Something fresh

Our lives feel mundane. When everything is familiar, we start taking it for granted. We can't imagine that our environs have any charms since we see them every day. We rarely visit local tourist attractions because they are always there and we could go whenever we like. We long for something fresh, something we've not seen before.

Escapism? In A Perfect Getaway, Milla Jovovich’s Hawaii honeymoon goes terrifyingly wrong.Meanwhile, even those of us who enjoy our work find parts of it a drag and we long for a break. Back in 1955, psychologist Erich Fromm suggested that Western society is profoundly unhealthy because of work's impact on mental health. It's more stressful than ever today, with more than 2 million people a year suffering work-related ill-health.

And don't get me started on day-to-day life's frenetic pace. Nobody seems to have any time to relax. No wonder the urge to escape, if only for a short time, is such a strong one.

Part of the joy of holidays for many people is the escapism of a good book. Dan Brown's DaVinci Code sequel, The Lost Symbol, comes out too late for the beach this year. But the Richard & Judy Book Club summer reads, including Bateman's Mystery Man and Janice Lee's The Piano Teacher, will be packed in many suitcases. The summer is also a time for escapism in the movies, with sequels like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ice Age 3 and Terminator Salvation sure to draw in big audiences who relish being taken, albeit briefly, to another time or place.

But at the heart of the holiday is the prospect of peace. That's exactly what the Pearsons are about to enjoy in the family thriller Aliens in the Attic: a perfect family vacation. Unfortunately, their holiday is wrecked by, well, aliens in the attic. And the honeymooners in A Perfect Getaway have their tranquility shattered when two killers stalk them.

A right to happiness?

Ordeals like this are an exaggeration of a fear that we all face. We dread having our holiday ruined, whether by builders finishing the hotel, noisy campers in the neighbouring tent or a deluge turning the great outdoors into a soggy swamp. We feel cheated of our right to some happiness. It's more fundamental than that, though, since we don't actually have a right to happiness. The real issue is that our desire for peace has been thwarted.

This yearning is deep inside each of us. It is not necessarily a hankering for quietness, since some of us relish activity. But we all hunger to feel at peace with the world, our families and ourselves, and that can be very elusive in the normal daily round. Time spent in rest and recreation can certainly help us rediscover something of this, enabling us to find some inner calm.

"We all hunger to feel at peace with the world, our families and ourselves"

But of course nothing really changes in the long run. Our equanimity is sometimes disappointingly short-lived, evaporating at the sight of a clogged inbox. Even while we're on holiday, we know that our failings remain part of us.

The truth is that this world cannot deliver the deep, lasting peace we long for. And yet we thirst for it because we were created to experience it in a relationship with God. This is why we travel in search of new places and new experiences. As CS Lewis wrote, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."Tony Watkins

  • Find out more about the issues raised in this article at: damaris.org/ideamagazine
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Tony Watkins is managing editor of Culturewatch.org

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