Transcendentalism on Tumblr is an unattainable ideal

October 29, 2014

Scroll through your Tumblr feed, and you will probably be inundated with artsy pictures of cappuccinos, road trips, forests, books, and hipster mason jars. These posts project the objects and activities people wish filled their lives. The Tumblr aesthetic, true of a large community within Tumblr, is one that glorifies nature, solitude, and the simple things in life.

This aesthetic appeals to me, but that does not stop me from feeling a sense frustration when presented with it. What I find worrying is that this focus on reconnecting with nature and stillness toes the line of escapism.

Many Tumblr users are city dwellers—young, overworked professionals who feel the stress of the fast-paced, urban life. As a society we need to shift some of our attitude. Americans are some of the most overworked people in the world, and stress is practically a modern epidemic (this could just be my European background, with short work weeks and more paid vacations, talking). It is an objective fact that many young professionals and students don’t have enough free time, including the many overcommitted Georgetown students.

I grew up in Maine, the kind of place that makes many Tumblr users start to salivate. When I was a kid, we went on long walks in the autumn woods, ate fresh vegetables from the garden almost every night, had picnics on the beach, read books at night, did art projects, picked blueberries and pumpkins, baked pies, had leisurely breakfasts together on Sunday mornings, and generally lived exactly like the people on Tumblr blogs.

The idealization of the quiet rural life makes me angry. The romanticization of nature has a long history in Western culture, with Romanticism itself and books like Into the Wild. The appeal of “escaping to a cabin in the woods” is still present. This escapist desire, however, exists because it doesn’t take into account boredom and loneliness. Have you ever experienced the intense boredom of frigid February break in a rural New England town? Maybe you’ve never had to experience it, but I have. Cabin fever is enough to turn your little sanctuary from the outside world from a heaven into a hell.

All those overworked, stressed-out people on Tumblr don’t seem to understand that sitting around drinking coffee and staring at the rainy woods all day long can get old. These escapists wouldn’t be able to handle the idyllic lives that they fantasize about—part of the reason for these overworked lifestyles is an inability to deal with free time. So often people complain about being unproductive and of wasting time. Maybe this is part of the hardworking, Puritan history of the East Coast, or maybe it’s simply part of the professional and academic worlds, but this drive to be constantly productive has lead to a strong urge to escape, as seen in the Tumblr community.   I am not saying that one should not put effort into creating an enjoyable lifestyle. If you derive satisfaction from living alone in a cabin in the woods, by all means, go ahead and live there. There is no point, though, in moonlighting after romanticized visions of a totally different life. Nothing comes from dreaming without putting anything into action, so put in some concrete effort toward realizing that dream.

I want a less stressful life with more free time to enjoy my coffee, go on long hikes, and do art projects. The vicious cycle of stress and craziness that many of us fall into is not healthy. But I want to be perfectly clear: idealizing the opposite extreme is unhelpful, inaccurate, and ultimately will not get you to where you want to be.

This is the same attitude that our culture has toward other things, like eating healthy. When did we become so blinded that we forgot our most basic human instincts and had to be taught how to eat well or how to live in a balanced way? We are a culture of extremes, vacillating from epidemics of obesity to fad diets. Is it really so hard to stay balanced?

Rather than overly idealizing the ultimate escape into the wild, or at some expensive zen retreat, maybe we can bring a little bit of that balanced calm into our lives right now and not need to escape them at all.

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