Fred Newman (1935 – 2011) was a philosopher, psychotherapist, playwright and theater director; he was also one of my mentors and a co-founder of Performance of a Lifetime. This post is excerpted from his 1994 book Let’s Develop! It’s a self-help manual of sorts that I still turn to periodically when I want to take a break from giving advice by getting some of my own. This chapter seemed particularly relevant as July turns to August. Enjoy!
– Cathy Salit
The most pernicious myth of vacations is that you’re not supposed to do any work when you’re on them. But the truth is that it takes a lot of work, and a lot of energy, to organize a really good vacation. If you want to swim a lot on your vacation, then you need to make a plan that includes going where there’s water, with people who won’t insist that you spend every day sightseeing with them.
Oh, come on, you may be saying to yourself. Isn’t that painfully obvious? Painful, yes. Obvious? Not necessarily. It’s often the case that people who want to swim, or ride horses, or make love all day long on their vacations end up going to places where those things are impossible to do — or going away with people who can’t or don’t want to do those things with them. And they often ignore the fact that it’s these very same friends and relations who don’t do very much very willingly with them back home.
But the work of vacations doesn’t just take place beforehand; it’s necessary to build the vacation environment continuously, all the time you’re “on vacation.” You see, relaxation isn’t just a matter of stopping what you usually do; it’s doing a different activity. Just not doing what you’re used to every day isn’t, by itself, necessarily marvelous — even if you don’t enjoy the daily routine. Ask any retiree with a lot of time on his, or her, hands and no plans. While two negatives may make a positive according to the rules of English grammar and of algebra, it doesn’t always work that way in life. In fact, the assumption many people make that merely leaving a bad relationship, an unhappy marriage or a lousy job will make everything alright often leads to tremendous disappointment. (This, by the way, is why counseling or 12-step programs or diets, which concentrate on getting people to stop doing something that they’ve decided is negative, are often of limited value.)
This is not to deny that not doing certain things can sometimes yield considerable pleasure, or at least relief. It’s just not the whole story. Once you’ve experienced the satisfaction of sleeping ’til noon on the rst Monday of your vacation, you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do after that. If all you want to get from a vacation is the gratification that comes from not going to your job — then my advice is not to go anywhere. You’ll also have the gratification of saving a bunch of money. Or you can do something positively different.
Now there’s a certain kind of vacation you can take at home which can be a whole lot of fun, and very gratifying, because of what you are doing. What it requires, like every other kind of vacation, is shifting gears — changing pace, slowing down — mentally and physically. And you need to do this even if you’re into doing a lot. Which is part of why you have to work on it.
In everyday life, much of what we do isn’t gratifying in and of itself; it’s a means to an end. We do it to get it done, to get it over with: giving the kids breakfast, depositing a check, catching the bus, writing a report, calling the plumber, doing the plumbing, having a meeting, making a sale, picking up the clothes from the dry cleaners, giving the kids their bath. Our everyday activities all tend to be overdetermined by considerations of time and money. They’re functional. They’re ways of getting something.
On vacations, however, we supposedly do things for the sake of doing them rather than for some other purpose. Walking on the beach, taking a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, sightseeing, shopping, getting your picture taken with Mickey Mouse, climbing a mountain or looking at the Mona Lisa are usually not means to an end, but ends in themselves. In other words, the point of vacations is to enjoy what you’re doing. Which is why you want to slow the process down, and savor everything.
What you need to do is give yourself and others a break from the getting game. Vacations are a great time to practice giving; the best vacations are vacations from getting. A really gratifying, restful vacation, as I see it, is when people who care about each other get together and work to organize an environment in which they can just give to each other. Sounds like too much work, I can hear the cynic objecting. No. It’s much more like play.
On vacations, as in life, what’s most important is not what you’re not doing but what you are doing. This includes, of course, how you’re doing it.
A good vacation requires giving — including the conscious giving of energy to planning and organizing it. If you don’t organize it — whether “it” is the rest of your life, a two-week vacation with your four best friends, a birthday party for your eight-year-old, or a romantic evening with the one you love — it isn’t likely to be what you want.
Yes, satisfying and gratifying relaxation — breaking out of getting and into giving — takes a great deal of work. The good news is that working with people we care about to create an environment in which we can play together in new ways is much more than the necessary prerequisite for having a good time — it’s what makes the good times so good.
Get a vacation guidebook, sit down with someone you’re close to, choose a place you’d like to go together, and talk about how you’d create an environment there in which you could be giving to each other all the time.
Excerpted from Let’s Develop! A Guide to Continuous Personal Growth © 1994, 2010 by All Stars Project, Inc.
Cathy Salit is a performer and the founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books) is on sale everywhere books are sold.
Follow her on Twitter: @CathySalit