The Jewish Studio

How to take a real vacation

It’s summer, and 58% of Americans are likely to take vacations – some by plane, most by car. Vacations have countless motivations: visit friends or family, change scenery, change pace, have fun, relax, seek adventure, (re)kindle romance, find ourselves or get away from it all. Sometimes vacations work their magic: we return refreshed – at least for awhile.

It’s tempting to imagine that location change alone will change us. As Lin-Miranda’s hit “Hamilton” puts it, “In New York, you can be a new man.” As Hebrew aphorism puts it, “Change location, change luck” (shoneh makom, shoneh mazal). It’s an ancient idea hailing from Talmud (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 16b), rooted early in Torah: “Go,” says God to Avram, “and I will make you great” (Gen. 12:1-2). We’ve been “going” ever since: this week’s Torah portion (Matot-Masei), named for “journeys,” is all about going – 42 destinations en route from here to there, location changes one after another.

But wherever they went, there they were. No single location change changed anyone. It was only the totality of their 40-year journey that changed them.

As for them, so for us. Wherever we go, there we are. We take ourselves on vacation – not just our luggage but also our baggage. We take our habits, our devices, our family dynamics and our inner self-talk. And if vacations take us out of routines and give us more time to notice things, vacations might make us more aware of the very things we wanted to escape.

Such hopes often are unspoken and unconscious, and almost always unrealistic. Psychologists explain that many take vacations expecting an oasis or paradise away from themselves. That’s why many vacationers return with equally unspoken and unconscious disappointment that their vacations passed so fast and changed so little.

So how to take a real summer vacation? Here are some ideas.

First, loosen external expectations. That’s a big ask – especially for “Type A” planners taking vacations with complex itineraries. Make plans but hold them gently, so that reality’s adventure can be what it is, without judgment. Better to enjoy what is than compare it to a false ideal.

Second, loosen internal expectations. Be aware of whatever you think and feel a vacation might be, and hold that gently. Notice if you expect yourself (or someone else) to be someone different on vacation: unknown and unspoken expectations can sour the best intentions.

Third, actually rest. Thich Nhat Hanh lamented, “The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.” Make yourself rest, whatever that means to you.

Fourth, notice something wonderful and deliberately small on vacation, then do the same thing on returning home. As this week’s Torah portion puts it, what we call “God” dwells exactly where we are (Num. 36:34) – home, vacation, everywhere. A vacation is a chance to re-focus and practice this awareness so that we can better keep it wherever we are.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher said, “If we would only give, just once, the same amount of reflection to what we want to get out of life that we give to the question of what to do with a two week vacation, we would be startled at our false standards and the aimless procession of our busy days.”

May your vacation be real – not false – as a small down payment on a life’s journey that is ever more real in every important way.

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