Whether it’s the ideal partner (the one and only), the ideal home, the ideal place, the ideal experience, the idea of perfection abounds in our cultural values. It’s about what we deem to be unblemished, faultless or sublime – meaning awe inspiring, spiritually uplifting, promoting deep veneration and stirring the emotions. Naturally, the specifics vary for each of us, but there are some common threads which bind these ideals together and we chase the perfect in what we seek. But where does the concept of ‘the ideal’ come from? And what are the controlling factors of our expectations?
Since I have to by necessity narrow this vast topic down, I’m going to talk about the ideal place, which many of us seek by travel, and therefore usually on holiday, where we invest our precious savings into what we hope will be an amazing experience. For me these sought after experiences would be centred around enjoying nature.
So let’s look at where our ideals and expectations for the ideal may come from:
The historical legacy of the Romantic movement – here I’m talking about Romanticism in art, music and literature at its peak from 1800 to 1850. This was about the feeling and emotions of the individual as opposed to social conformity, and in relation to my theme of place, it was about the exploration of atmospheric landscapes and psychic wildernesses, the glorification of nature, and the seeking of the sublime in nature.
So we have the explorer, conservationist, and nature writer, John Muir, climbing up a 100 foot Douglas Spruce in a Sierra forest wilderness in California to experience first hand and later describe a wind storm together with the magificant views:
‘never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly swished and flapped in the passionate torrent…while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.’
Sounds like an awe-inspiring experience to me and this was the new ‘romantic’ way of looking at the world around us, which I believe is still with us today, having been unconsciously assimilated into our desires and anticipations.
But what’s wrong with it? Nothing at first sight, but it demands a close attention to detail, contemplative observation, and to be honest, the sublime feelings are more likely to be promoted when alone – just how often were you alone on your last visit to a place like Yosemite or an even better example, the Grand Canyon? Tourists crawl like ants over these special wildernesses. And surely the practical would get in the way, grappling with a map, getting blisters, getting low on provisions…and you’d need to set aside these aspects. But could you? Which leads me to what type of person you are.
Personality type is another controlling factor. My partner is a practical cynic, he no longer expects to be wowed, in fact he expects to be disappointed (an former idealist weathered by the world). I’m a ‘romantic’ arty type, trying hard not to be weathered by the world, so you can imagine the tussles we’ve had, and these differences have caused problems on our holidays. I want to drive down that interesting rocky track into Death Valley, he thinks it will wreck the hire car. Turns out to be supposedly a track that the Donner party took getting out of the valley of death, and there were beautiful Indian paintbrush flowers to look at, so I later feel totally vindicated by romance trumping the practical, and us not having used the correct road in. ‘But we could have got stuck, and where would we have been then?’ says my partner.
So your individual personality, however it’s moulded, can certainly control our ideals and expectations, remembering that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which brings me to this point…
What about other people’s claims? I’m talking here about what other people, friends, acquaintances tend to say about where they’ve been on holiday. Well, you must have noticed that after a long-winded description of hyperbole, during which you begin to wish you’d never asked them anything, they punctuate their narrative with It was just amazing! You should go! And I used to listen to this stuff, and I would feel a little jealous, I used to think it must be a wonderful place if X, whose opinion I have always respected, says so.
How wrong I was! And this romantic arty type here, has finally learned her lesson after a couple of holidays testing these theories out. Don’t trust anyone else’s opinion but your own, don’t be persuaded by anyone. There is absolutely no guarantee that just because they liked a place, so will you, or that you will see the ‘wonders’ they saw.
For example, I was told by a friend that on a particular location on the shore of Mull, where she recently stayed, that there were wild otters frolicking in the streams leading to the ocean. My partner and I stayed in the same place, checked out the beach several times and saw zilch, nothing, nadda. And the little lodge we stayed in (more of a hut in reality) was damp, grubby and depressing. And we saw not one whale on a boat trip, as strongly suggested in the advertising. To this day, I still have yet to see a whale or a dolphin, though the yearnings remain.
And the penny finally dropped for me in Cyprus, on a Leggo-land seaside resort. Where the people were packed onto the beach like sardines in a can, each on a little patch of sand, to soak up the rays of an overworked sun, or to swim through litter in the sea. Where the Troodos mountains left a lot to be desired, with no pretty villages whatsoever. Where places of interest were either not signposted or off limits completely despite being in the brochure. Where the mass of up-opened shade umbrellas on the bare earth lawns of the Leggo hotels looked disturbingly to my partner and I like Grim Reaper shrouds. Where the only point of interest was the hurriedly evacuated resort ‘ghost’ town of Famagusta, behind barbed wire, a site of conflict between Turks and Cypriots, still waiting for the tourists to come back and collect their towels hanging from the hotel balconies. And I have never felt so stupid – for not having realised a resort holiday would be a nightmare for us, and where for once my partner and I shared equally the agony of waiting out time to go home.
So, when I sussed out that people can ‘talk up’ their holidays to unconsciously persuade themselves they had a good time, and thus money was well spent, it was a light bulb moment for me. After all, no one wants to go back home feeling they had a lousy time and that they wasted their savings on it, and used up all their holiday entitlement too. (Needless to say, I didn’t ‘talk up’ Cyprus).
And sometime if you dig a little deeper you find out they had dodgy tummies the whole time they were there, or something went horribly wrong on an idyllic excursion, which they happen to mention after the glowing reports.
Another example. My sister was on a snorkelling boat trip in Turkey. Her sublime experience was rudely interrupted by her sitting down in the water on a rock for a rest – right on top of a sea urchin – and she spent the rest of the trip having the spines being pulled out of her bottom, one by one, by the ‘experienced’ skipper – most women’s idea of the height of cringing indignity (Luckily, when I came to do this snorkelling activity, I’d being forewarned.)
And we all do have variable standards for our experiences, mine happen to be high, because of the romantic in me, so when I get to a particular place someone has gushed about, my reaction is frequently ‘Is this it?’
Being seduced by marketing speak – this is huge. Enticing words to make us salivate. I’ll use the example of the perfect beach or coastline. You know the ones – ‘Secluded sparkling white sandy beach with crystal clear water in which dolphins are frequently sighted, reached by a winding pathway through dense pines. The beach is fringed by lush vegetation, and there are tantalising goat tracks to follow…with a two minute walk to the crumbling ruins of an ancient temple….’
And it can’t be coincidence that visualisations techniques for relaxation frequently employ the perfect beach image, so deeply is it embedded in our culture. So in brochures we are presented with colour pictures of vivid supernatural intensity, photo-enhanced blues and greens, or the misty sunset tints on rocky shorelines…
and, of course, with never a single person in sight. And the text is full of hyperbole and romantic nature language. And we want to believe places like this exist, which they may well do but not on the average budget. And believing that nature should come free, you don’t want money to have to come into it, but it does.
To conclude – I think we want to believe in the ideal because it’s embedded in our psyche, and those Romantics tapped into that and made it flourish. And I have had some sublime nature moments myself. Here are a few at home or abroad:
Listening to a congregation of frogs croaking in mounting intensity in a meadow on a walk in Sequoia national park, surrounded by giant redwoods, not many people around.
Hearing crickets for the very first time, sat outside a King’s Canyon cafe after sunset.
Walking through a canyon in Arizona, seeing the vivid red rock and the cottonwood trees growing in the valley by thin rivers of blue.
And I still marvel when I’m on a flight looking down into the clouds that at any other time we see from below – how amazing is that?
Watching a bee take nectar from a flower in the garden.
Seeing the wind in a nearby field stir the tips of ripe barley into a golden ocean of waves.
And you will have your own special moments.
So we can enjoy the ideal experience when we find it, but I’d like to suggest we have to take on board a few mitigating factors.
Don’t have too high an expectation. As my Grandma liked to say: ‘Be careful what you wish for, otherwise you’ll only be disappointed’ and an even more ruthless one of hers ‘I want, never gets’. Such received wisdoms still have their place.
Learn to see through the hyperbole of other people and the marketing world driven by money making. Read between the lines, do some research to acquaint yourself with the facts.
Appreciate what you already have. Maybe you have some ideal elements in your life which you are taking for granted?
Embrace your own unexpected sublime moments, recognise them as special, right there and then, nothing to do with other people, or marketing, just you and your response. And maybe the unexpected moments are the best of all. Maybe they are the ones that can and should live inside you forever.
(Apart from Yosemite, all other images courtesy of pixabay)