Are you making the most of your annual leave? Are your holidays notably #lifealtering? Do you return from your travels a changed person?
If you answered no to any of the above, there may be something missing from your itinerary. And it’s not sleep, cocktails or pasta from the kitchen of an Italian mama (though these are admirable traits in a holiday). What you need is some stress.
I stumbled upon the concept of ‘unrest’ holidays while reading Angela Mollard’s ‘The Smallest Things’. The funny thing was, I happened to be reading this book on an unrest holiday of my own. ‘The Smallest Things’ was an interesting choice for me, as it’s pretty much a book about raising children. In fact, I distinctly recall self-consciously plucking it from the shelves of the parenting section, in the same way I might confront the ladies’ aisle of the supermarket. Nothing to see here! Now interesting choice indeed, as I am neither a child, nor do I have one. The drawcard was that I have always enjoyed Mollard’s columns in the Sunday paper. I used to read them religiously, it was the highlight of my day during my uni years when I would spend my Sundays chained to the concierge desk at Westfield. I’m glad I wasn’t put off by the ‘families’ theme because what came through in the book was more of an individual story, about Mollard’s various meanders through work and life.
In one chapter, Mollard describes the effect of having children on her sense of adventure. In her past life as a London-based journalist, she would fly around the world constantly, steeling into the unknown to collect stories from abroad. So often would she go that she kept her passport and a spare pair of undies in her handbag. After having children and pivoting to a more domestic media career, Mollard found herself avoiding any manner of risk. In lieu of adventuring, she resorted to coffee table books. This change in pace manifested in many parts of her life, including her holidays. Having left her adventurous spirit at the hospital, Mollard had settled into the common routine of sanitised and comfortable holidays. Restful yes, but invigorating? Maybe not.
Mollard started to wonder if she had retreated too far into the corner of safety. And if it was doing her more harm than good. It was safe there, but there wash’t much to see, and it left her wanting.
Mollard describes this reckoning in detail. As she lay on her safe couch, in her safe home, in her safe city, in her safe country, she finally understood what she was yearning for. She deploys New York Times columnist A.A. Gill to explain:
‘Our continual hunt for relaxation- de-stressing, chilling, hammock-swinging, pool-schmoozing- is all wrong. What we need, what makes us excited and active and interesting is the danger and the self-reliance. If things are getting on top of you, what you need is an unrest holiday. You need more and different stress, not less. Relaxation is breathing out, the good bit is taking a deep breath and jumping in.’
I love this so much. And nothing is more true. Because sometimes hitting pause on our life is not enough. Sometimes that can leave us rested, but unchanged. Sometimes we need to subject ourselves to challenges and stress, different from that which we meet every day, and to show ourselves what we can do. That’s why people fly halfway around the world to sleep in a tent and climb a mountain, or spend thousands of their own dollars to study or volunteer, or ride their bike across a country.
These holidays aren’t comfortable, restful, or even particularly fun. But they can be life-altering. Because they put us in new situations and allow us to see how we go. More often than not we will do more than we ever thought we would be capable of. And we will return knowing that we are more than we ever thought we were. Unlike a rest holiday, the best part of an unrest holiday can be coming home, having seen so much, done so much and learnt so much.
Having learnt all of this, I now know that it was so serendipitous that I happened to read this book when I did. That I read it on a trip to India, by myself, to spend three weeks in a house with relative strangers working on a project for Pollinate Energy. Indeed, I believe I read this very section in the middle of the night, alone, on a half empty flight to Bangalore.
For a nervous flyer, barrelling through the night sky towards an unfamiliar destination is a nerve-wracking scenario that could have left me wondering what on earth I was doing, and why I didn’t just spend my annual leave like normal people do, horizontal in Noosa. But reading Mollard’s thoughts on unrest holidays, I understood why.
I can report that like Mollard’s post-awakening trek in Nepal, my trip to India was one of the most fulfilling and exhilarating times of my life. It was tough, mentally and physically. Our task was huge. We had to design and carry out a field report on the impact of solar lights in local slums. I was working with people from all different professions, which made it interesting and ultimately made our work better, but also led to regular bewilderment and frustration (just for the record lawyers are from Mars, scientists are from Venus). But most of all I was tired, long days of field work and late nights of writing, writing and writing.
Rested no, but I was restoring and growing in a way I hadn’t in my previous holidays. The people, the ones I worked with and the locals I met, left me slightly altered forever, nudging my views on this and that and teaching me things I never knew. I also found myself in circumstances I simply never would have known, had I not taken that trip. I distinctly remember one night in a slum, the sun fading and darkness setting in, sitting inside the tent home of a happy, working family, and interviewing them about their life with a solar light (an innovative replacement for toxic kerosene lamps – the traditional vessel of light for off-the-grid slums). Sitting there on the mat, gazing around at the shelves, neatly stacked with modest supplies, the small but tidy bed for four and the roof decorated with drying clothes, I looked up and tried to picture where I was in the darkening world. I thought, I am in this tent, in this slum, a pinprick on the map of Bangalore, on the map of India, on the map of the world. I felt so far from home, but so at home. And the wonder of it all overcame me. I’m not sure you’d get that feeling poolside at a Hilton somewhere.
Now I’m not saying that every holiday ought to be unrestful. Sometimes all a girl needs is 5 days, a book and a swim-up bar. But occasionally we need something different. We need to send ourselves away in search of something more. If only so that when we come home, we are changed for the better. As T.S. Eliot said so profoundly:
‘The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’
Thought Leader(s): Angela Mollard
Book(s): Mollard, A (2013) ‘The Smallest Things: Thoughts on Making a Happy Family’, HarperCollins.