Sharpied onto a bathroom wall in Evans is a cityscape not unlike Berkeley. Far above it, what appears to be a rock climber scales the stall. A rope from above fastens him to the very top and a rope from below anchors him to the city. Just inches from reaching the top of the stall, he is perpetually in a state of almost-escape, almost-victory.
Like the climber, each one of us is stuck in a labyrinth of obligations, schedules and chores. Even worse, the reason our mental trappings are so deeply ingrained and so desperately inescapable is because they are familiar. Familiarity breeds routine and routine breeds comfort. Pretty soon we become our own daily routine — slaves to an unrelenting to-do list. All of these stresses create walls in our minds, forming an impossibly intricate maze.
In John Green’s young adult novel, Looking for Alaska, the title character deals with this exact issue. She is obsessed with finding a way to escape “the labyrinth of suffering.” Alaska’s labyrinth is a reference to one in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, The General and His Labyrinth, which draws on images from the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. So really, it’s just one universal labyrinth felt across genres and generations and geography.
Personally, I’ve always been a fan of quitting. Ever since I decided halfway through my Bat Mitzvah training that the Hebrew prayers were too stressful and gave up, I’ve been addicted to resignation. Looking back, making the decision to quit was more of a blessing than any of the ones I failed to say over wine or bread. When the stress was gone after I quit, I breathed a deep l’chaim of relief. The weight of the Torah was lifted from my preteen shoulders. Amen.
I’m a pro-quitter because I’m a pro-escapist. Like Daedalus, every time I feel myself becoming trapped in a labyrinth, rather than scurrying about trying to find the exit, I fashion myself a pair of wings and fly away.
What our technological generation fails to understand, however, is how to best fly away. The internet makes us think that we have found an escape from our problems—that when we’re online, we’re somehow offline from reality. The truth is that social media and the like are not escapes but just further trappings. After scrolling through fifty pages of memes, Facebook stories, news articles and YouTube videos, not only is there no sense of accomplishment, but you feel as if you haven’t even properly procrastinated.
True escape is physical escape. It’s done in solitude. It’s being in an unfamiliar place surrounded by unfamiliar people. Sometimes it’s the abandonment of an obligation. Sometimes it’s recognizing the importance of a task, followed by not caring.
I imagine that many people living in Berkeley never want to leave. But for all its concentrated intellect, sunshine and quirkiness, the city can be horribly suffocating. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the town or campus, but even the sweetest of perfumes can choke you and make you crazy if that’s all you ever breathe. For myself, I’ve found that if I spend three consecutive weeks in Berkeley without leaving, a time bomb inside me goes off. The claustrophobia of Cal becomes too much. I become restless. I itch to escape. Every bus that passes by is a temptation: hop on, get away, go anywhere. While most pedestrians here wage a silent war against city drivers for territory, I envy anyone behind the wheel.
To me, freedom is the on-ramp to I-580. Freedom is the sound of a terrible Top 20 Hit blasting from the radio. And I hate the music, I really do. My better half wants to scream at T-Swift to choose a better guy next time, to tell Ms. Minaj straight-up that there are a full eight months before Halloween so please stop scaring small children. But I sing along with them anyway. Their auto-tuned voices cue my liberation. The freeway is my freedom. Moments like these are the only time when I wish I had continued my Bat Mitzvah preparations so that I could properly say a prayer of gratitude to highways.