If we take the meaning of the word “vacation” seriously, it’s a time to “empty out” all the routine stuff of our everyday lives, to make vacant our homes and offices, maybe even our minds. My favorite vacation story comes from Garrison Keillor’s collection titled The Book of Guys. This particular story is about Wes, a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania; it’s titled “Zeus the Lutheran.”
The god Zeus, who was the father of Athena, Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysius, plus the father of Hephaestus by his wife Hera and of Eros by his daughter Aphrodite, was a guy who — how to say this delicately — wouldn’t take no for an answer. Armed with thunderbolts, he followed every amorous impulse of his heart, relating intimately to nymphs, gods, and mortals, sometimes changing himself into a swan or horse or snake or human being to escape detection.
Not surprisingly, his wife Hera was regularly furious with him. Once, after Hera heard that Zeus had taken up with a minor deity named Janice on the island of Patmos, she hired a lawyer named Alan to talk some sense into him.
A vacation is an opportunity for us to gain a new perspective on our lives, to see ourselves and our way of life from the outside . . .
“Tail him,” she told Alan. “Track him down and nail his hide to the wall and put Janice on a plane to Peru.” (I’m sanitizing Hera’s language somewhat.)
Alan caught up with Zeus at an outdoor cafe by the harbor in Patmos. “I realize that you’re omniscient,” Alan began, “But let me come right to the point and say what’s on my mind. Enough already! What are you trying to prove? Knock it off with the fornication, okay? You’re a god, for Pete’s sake. Be a little divine for a change. Otherwise, Hera means business, and we’re not talking about divorce, mister. You should be so lucky. Hera intends to take over the world. She’s serious.”
Pastor Wes and his wife Diane sailed into the harbor shortly thereafter on the second leg of a two-week cruise that the congregation of Zion Lutheran Church in Pennsylvania had given them in gratitude for Wes’s 10 years of ministry. Zeus saw Diane standing at the rail of her ship when it docked and was entranced by her strawberry-blonde hair and great tan against the blue Mediterranean sky.
Feeling a familiar itch, Zeus paid his check and headed for the gangplank. When the time came for Zeus to make a move, he took over Wes’s body, and the soul of Wes dropped into an old dog named Spiros, who lived on the docks and suffered from a bad hernia.
This exchange led to a remarkable series of insights and discoveries on the part of both Zeus and Pastor Wes. Wes later mused, “Becoming a dog would never have been my choice, but now that I am one, I can see that, as a man, my sense of self was always tied up with power and, in some sense, with being an oppressor, being dominant. In the course of following my maleness, as my culture taught me to think of maleness, I got separated from my beingness, my creaturehood. It is so liberating to see things from down here at floor level. You learn a lot about human relentlessness.”
Because of the apparent symmetry between my inner life and my outer context, I usually feel no need to question either.
Buoyed along by Keillor’s trademark whimsy, this story gets exactly right what a vacation is about — or should be all about. A vacation is an opportunity for us to gain a new perspective on our lives, to see ourselves and our way of life from the outside, perhaps also to see other people and their ways of life from the inside. On vacation, we risk seeing things differently. Life often has a better chance of getting through to us when we are away from home, doing things we don’t usually do.
A vacation is a time to empty our lives of the routine experiences which we have come to take for granted, and to replace them with new experiences which we don’t take for granted. If successful, this process once again piques our interest in the life around us. We notice in a new way the play of light and shadow, the smell of the marsh and the pleasure of conversation, the sound of laughter and the feel of raindrops. We have time to think big thoughts, pay careful attention, and ponder things we can never comprehend. Energized by this new appreciation for the world around us, we then return to our everyday lives to find old routines transformed by our new attentiveness.
But something more can happen as well, and this is far more risky. It has to do with who we are, not just the way we live. Most of the time, the way we understand ourselves as individuals depends more on what we see outside ourselves than on what we feel inside.
In other words, if I want to know who I am, I simply look at the way I live my life. No need to look inside; the context of my life serves as a mirror into my soul. Because of the apparent symmetry between my inner life and my outer context, I usually feel no need to question either. I see myself reflected in my life and I assume that I am who my context says that I am — I assume that the “I” within and my life without are the same thing.
We are forced to do the hard work of discovering yet again who we are — we who have set out in search of something new.
When things and people around us are unfamiliar, however, we cannot fall back on the image of who we are mirrored to us by our normal lives. We are forced to do the hard work of discovering yet again who we are — we who have set out in search of something new. The catalyst may be as simple as the discovery of a new pathway through the park or as daunting as an extended sojourn in Tibet.
If we are lucky, we may find ourselves wandering toward some place we have never been before, toward some place of self-awareness or self-acceptance that will genuinely transform us. As the poet T.S. Eliot put it, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
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