Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Art of Escapism for People Suffering a Reality Overdose

Confessions of a thug-life fantasizer and reflections on how to do it safely.

By day, I try to figure out what’s fair; at night, I watch TV, often rooting for the anti-heroes who are so popular these days — the vile and violent thugs who get away with murder.

I have no trouble siding with them: the Tony Sopranos, Scarfaces, El Chapos, and Al Swerrengins. Sure, they’re immoral but that doesn’t bother me. They’re fearless and they prevail.

Maybe not in the end (it's a nice nod to morality when the thugs are finally taken down) but until then, I’m right with them, on their side. I’m being them. That’s fantasy-me up there, un-wincing, overpowering everyone, outwitting the straight-arrow honor-bound dweebs who get in my way.

I love to pretend I’m a gangster. Pretend. I take these nocturnal flights of fancy, always with a return ticket to reality in my heart pocket. The morning after, I’m back to work trying to figure out what’s fair, and not just what’s fair to me, but to others even when it costs me.

By day, I can’t abide people who assume they’re fair-minded merely because they’re obsessed with what’s fair to them, the folks who pretend they couldn’t lie, manipulate, or game-play just because they don’t like being lied to, manipulated, or game-played themselves. By day, I turn out to be very fussy about morality, just not at night when I turn all that off to get turned on by total jerks.

When they go low, I get high.

The better we get at distinguishing fantasy from reality, the more one can indulge safely in fantasies without distorting our adaptation to and accommodation of reality.

We humans have a challenge that other organisms don’t have. We are confronted with way more reality than any of us can stomach and we are afforded way more ways to escape it.

A dog doesn’t worry about death by a thousand cuts, not being able to pay the bills, that nasty thing someone said to it last week. And a dog can’t check out of its reality either with flights of hubris, becoming a legend in its own mind the way we can.

We humans have language which exposes us to way too much world and affords us way too many ways to ignore, dismiss, and reject it, as I do when, at the end of the day, I escape into thug-life fantasies.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a human. I empathize with our plight, less mine than that of most who have harder lives than I can imagine. If, as lucky as I am, I need flights of fancy, I better oblige my fellow humans their fantasies, too, since they have it much harder than I do. Even here in lucky, lucky America, so many people are watching their prospects tumble, their treats dry up, their prospects imperiled. I can’t imagine how they sleep at night, not for their guilty consciences, but for the anxieties their situations must produce.

I like my fiction rough, raw, and brutal. When it gets too light, romantic, or saccharine, I switch channels, but not because I’m braver—because I’m safer. I can afford to watch dark, realistic horrors because I’m not living one to the extent most do. If I were a slumdog in India, I too would crave the escapist silliness of most Bollywood movies.

And if I were stuck in some dead-end job under the thumb of some arrogant boss or faceless corporation all day, I’d also crave thug-life fantasy in the evening even more than I already do. Any victory, no matter how corny, unrealistic, or thuggish. The lure is so strong that morality is beside the point. Like many, if not all of us, I just want to win. I just want to imagine I’m winning.

If I were education-deprived, like many of us these days, I’d have more trouble than I do distinguishing fantasy from reality. I might be desperate enough to need to bleed my fantasies over into my reality. I doubt I’d go postal, taking ruthless revenge against my oppressors, as though I were Scarface in real life, but maybe I’d root for and fawn over some fearless, heartless, ruthless, immoral, psychopathic, narcissist cult leader, getting away with it by means of a reckless indifference to morality or even their own future. The thuggish version of “be here now,” I’d do it by day the same way I root for the gangsters in fiction at night, who always outwit the flatfooted, prudish dweebs trying to uphold the law, morality, tradition, and norms.

I might even do it in the name of morality. Thugs are masters of self-rationalization for whom moralizing is just another currency to be exploited to achieve immoral domination.

I wouldn’t put it past me or anyone in a pinch. I might think I side with their cause, but since they don’t, I won’t either. I’d side with an authoritarian leader merely because they’re winning, morality be damned. When they go low, I’d get high.

Our country seems to have that going on right now, a culture war between those who when the real-world gangsters go low, strain to go high, and those who when the real-world gangsters go low, get high.

I don’t think authoritarian followers are all that troubled by their leader’s indiscretions. They might give lip service to their concerns when posturing as the more rational, skeptical, and discerning. But to them, the advantages of siding with the seemingly invulnerable far outweigh the disadvantages.

The high of frustrating the dweebs and feeling indomitable is just too irresistible, especially for those who can’t and don’t or believe they needn’t want to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

These are people who forsake their own futures and the futures of their children for the immediate high of siding with the thugs, and I get it. I wouldn’t put it past me to bleed fantasy over into my reality, even if in the process I’m bleeding myself and my country dry. I do it in fantasy at night watching TV. If I didn’t know better or if I were hurting more, I too could fall for real-life thugs.

Education is in transition these days. With Google always at hand, we needn’t memorize so many facts. With computers everywhere, we needn’t know how to do math. What then is education for?

I’d say, for getting better at shopping among interpretations of reality, but not by the traditional standard whereby the opposite of right is wrong so much as the opposite of right is fantasy.

I’m for elevating fantasy to a higher, more respected status. We humans face way too much reality, more than a body can stand. We need escapism.

Hobbies, pastimes, daydreams, and fantasies are how we discharge the tensions that accumulate in our anxious, exposed human lives. I have a lot of respect for masturbation, spectator sports, violent video games, gangster movies, Trump rallies, punk and metal shows, every form of venting our anxiety through fantasies of invincibility. I have a lot of respect for religion too by the same token, even though it would disturb those who want them held to a more elevated status than escapism.

We humans need fantasy, escapism into fake godlike security and freedom. We need theatrical outrage as a purgative, flushing our anxiety and self-doubt through righteous indignation. I don’t begrudge any of us our pastimes for that.

I think it’s very unrealistic to pretend that humans could ever be very realistic, and yet if we don’t face reality, we’re doomed, not just as a species but individually, too. I want education to force us to confront reality through our best guesses at what’s right and true, yet with the opposite not being shameful wrongness but fantasy, which we need too. The better we get at distinguishing fantasy from reality, the more safely we can indulge in fantasy, as we must in order to manage our anxious human lives.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
More from Psychology Today