The Power of Vacation
by Rosalind Kaplan, MD
My husband and I just returned from a vacation. This one was out of the country, for the first time since the pandemic started, but like most of our vacations, it involved a lot of time in nature, being active and marveling at the incredible world that we live in.
Yes, this world is having a lot of problems-- global warming, war, poverty, loss of liberty. No question there, and I am not about to make light of any of them, or tell anyone to just ignore the peril that the human race is in.
However, when we pay attention to the problems without reminding ourself of how wondrous life, the world, and yes, even humans can be, it is very easy to slip into a state of despair. For doctors, I think this can happen very easily, as not only do we get the same constant barrage of bad news as everyone else, but we see all the suffering of disease and injury every day as well. (We can argue whether or not nature is responsible for that suffering; I think it's a pretty even mix of nature and human forces. Let's be realistic: nature intends for animals to be born and live and then die, and suffering is part of that equation. We can't change that, but we could change the way we people react to each others' suffering). Okay, that was a digression but what I'm trying to say is that the fact of our existence, the existence of other creatures and trees and mountains and ocean and sand is nothing short of amazing, and I know that I forget that way too often.
We went to Iceland, an island nation of active volcanoes, geothermal energy, glaciers, Viking descendants and an amazingly well-preserved Icelandic language. We spent most of our time hiking, but we also checked out the gorgeous Icelandic horses, rafted on some ice-cold water, and sampled the cuisine. We listened to an Icelandic folk singer and of course, explored the city of Reykjavik a bit. In doing all this--viewing the massive waterfalls, the rock faces and gorges, walking in the place that two tectonic plates meet, getting close to a massive glacier juxtaposed with burning hot geothermal springs--I felt nothing short of awe. Whether one believes in a higher power or not, it is all miraculous.
I was too busy to look at my newsfeed much, though I was aware of the catastrophes going on at home, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I certainly didn't isolate myself from the strife.
It was Friday, June 24th, early afternoon in Iceland when SCOTUS announced the terrible decree, and I was sitting in a cafe in Reykjavik. I felt flattened, like I'd been hit by a bus, even though I had expected it to happen.
What gave me some solace, at the time, was to talk to people in Reykjavik. In the cafe, in shops, even the passport checkpoint agent at the airport, told me they were sad for the US, and were standing in solidarity with all the women in the US, who now have less civil liberties than women in Iceland, and in almost all of Europe. That matters, because it makes it harder to be gaslighted here in the US.
Despite Roe, I returned to the US on the 25th feeling generally refreshed and more optimistic that the world is not ending yet. The world is an amazing place, full of amazing people. We have so much work to do, but it's not hopeless. When I went to work on Monday, I had more energy for my patients and was able to be more compassionate. So vacation was good for doctoring. Clinicians, as a group, are not good at taking vacations; they tend not to take all their time off because of responsibilities, but in reality, this isn't benefiting doctors or patients.
I don't think you have to go to Iceland to feel the awe. I needed a jolt, apparently, to get out of a negative mindset, but I'm pretty sure I could have found it in lots of places, if I'd only looked. Vacation, the time and space to look around, to get a fresh perspective, is what gave rise to the jolt.
Take your vacation. All of it. Don't take work with you. Go outside. See the world. Talk to people. It's powerful.