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The 'Aha' Moment: Vacation Epiphany : Revelations: Some vacationers return refreshed and ready to go; others realize they want to trade their lives in for new ones.

August 25, 1994|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You know the drill. You take the long-awaited summer vacation, with all of its requisite joys and hassles.

You spend a couple of weeks removed from the Skinner box that is your so-called life and come back rested and rejuvenated--ready for your workaday life to resume, even if it does take a day or two to adjust.

But some vacationers have found that disengaging from their humdrum routines in order to spend time in a faraway, unfamiliar or beautiful locale has changed their lives--inspiring career switches, lifestyle changes or cross-country moves. Experts say that such instant revelations--some call them "aha!" moments--happen most often to those who feel unfulfilled and who undergo perception shifts that enable them to see a new direction or choice.

Such was the case 16 years ago when Barbara Wolf and her husband, Bertil, took a "consciousness-raising trip" to Israel sponsored by their local Jewish Federation.

On the airplane flight over, Barbara Wolf--non-religious and inactive in the Jewish community--became mesmerized by a headline in a newspaper being read by a nearby passenger about the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when the Nazis went on a rampage, shattering windows and setting fires to Jewish homes and synagogues.

Upon reading the article, "all of the sudden I became acutely aware that the Holocaust had something to do with me," Wolf said. "It was an arresting moment . . . a very powerful moment. I was intellectually aroused."

Five days later at Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Wolf, then 40, split off from the group and went to the Hall of Names archives. It was closed off with velvet ropes, but she went in anyway and found the names of about 40 of her husband's relatives from the Netherlands who had perished in the Holocaust.

"It was a very spiritual . . . emotional experience," she said, adding that she quit her job as a nurse when she returned to Swampscott, Mass., and became the editor of a Jewish journal, later winning five awards from the American Jewish Press Assn.

"I was shaking and I still have the notes I scribbled," said Wolf, who traveled to the concentration camps and attended her husband's family reunion in the Netherlands a few years ago.

"It crystallized a lot of things for me . . . that I could make a commitment to (this) . . . it was a connectedness to my history. It was like a switch. That experience eclipsed what went on on the rest of that trip in terms of socialization."

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Such experiences are like personal lightning strikes, said Chaytor Mason, emeritus associate professor of human factors/psychology at USC.

"We expose parts of ourselves that we don't look at on a day-to-day basis because of the demands of the workaday world," Mason said. "Vacations demand different parts of ourselves and may get us in touch with unsatisfied and unfulfilled aspects of ourselves (such as) childhood dreams. The experience for a lot of people is 'this is the real me.' "

Mason said the opportunity to reflect and explore different aspects of ourselves increases the potential for a gestalt, a psychological term for an experience that allows a person to see the overall meaning of things instead of just its parts.

James Peters' "aha!" moment hit last August when he was in Minneapolis for a vacation and a long-distance swimming competition. Peters, a competitive swimmer since high school, had always been driven by a "killer instinct," unapologetically climbing over other racers or herding them into buoys during indoor or ocean races.

The day the 700 competitors were scheduled to swim indoor races at the University of Minnesota, Peters decided to ride his bike the 20 miles along the Mississippi River from St. Louis Park to the Minneapolis campus pool.

"I rode my bike down along the river and there wasn't a gun going off and I wasn't racing and I thought, 'I can do this for enjoyment,' " said Peters, who thinks his turning 30 on the trip compounded the revelation.

"I rode down to Minnehaha Falls . . . it's a 100-foot drop and it flows into the Mississippi River," he said. "I . . . thought, 'Why am I doing this? I don't think I need to do this to prove myself anymore. What does this race have to do with the big scheme of things?' It ceased to have any benefit except to go out and beat the clock. It got to be empty."

Peters, a self-described "computer geek" at Mobil Oil Co. in Dallas, missed the race and hasn't competed since. Now, Peters says, when he swims and bikes he stops "to smell the flowers instead of hammering past them."

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Mark Goulston, a UCLA assistant clinical psychology professor, said vacations are a readout on whether or not you are happy with your life.

"If you are happy, you come back rested and reinvigorated . . . but if you're unhappy with your life, there is almost a phobic feeling about restarting where you left off. There is an irony to vacations in that they make you realize you have a choice . . . that you don't have to live this rat race."

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