Newsletter: Traveling… for nothing?

Today’s newsletter comes from the blog “The Art of Manliness”, and provides a timely reflection on the “traveling for traveling” culture that seems to be ever larger.  Here it goes an adapted version of the original post:

<< Modern culture is in the throes of a real love affair with travel. It has become a central element of our zeitgeist, a main tenet in living a fulfilled, non-pedestrian life. Everywhere you turn, and no matter the dilemma, travel is offered as the cure.

 Don’t know what you want to do after graduating college? Take a year off to travel.

 Spark gone out of your relationship? Take more trips with your significant other.

 Feeling restless and generally bored with life? Set off on an epic adventure around the globe.

 Travel isn’t just framed as a cure-all for what ails us, either, but as a goal around which to build the other elements of one’s life. (…) In a relatively safe and prosperous time, in a society that lacks many built-in challenges and hardships, travel has become the way to have an adventure, to demonstrate a kind of bravery — a cosmopolitan courage where one ventures into unfamiliar territory and undergoes a rite of passage to become an enlightened global citizen.

Travel is thus seen as both a tool of personal development and an almost altruistic moral good.

 If travel has developed into a kind of cult, one of its sacred texts is surely The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. The plot has been cited by many as a parallel to the way moderns should strive to escape the orbit of a boring, conventional life and get out and see the world: Bilbo lives a safe, comfortable, bourgeoisie existence, snug in his wood-paneled, fireplace-heated, well-stocked hobbit hole, until he is fairly dragged along on an adventure by a bunch of dwarves. He experiences a call to greatness he never knew he possessed, demonstrates courage and leadership, grows his perspective, and eventually returns to his suburban shire a changed hobbit. Here, it seems, is the story of the modern, domesticated, drone-turned-world-traveler, acted out in the realm of fantasy.

 Seeing the book as inspiration to travel may work convincingly for many. But it didn’t move the behavior of one prominent exception: the author himself.

Tolkien’s own life was one of quiet, ordinary, unvarying domestic routine. He lived in a series of modest, very conventional suburban homes, and spent his days as professor, husband, and father. (…) He rarely traveled, almost never went abroad. (…) Even after his books became international bestsellers, his lifestyle remained almost entirely the same.


 “The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination — not the small reach of their courage or latent power”, he said once. (…) No, the thing Tolkien thought the average hobbit, or Englishman, lacked was not bravery, but a thoroughly vitalized imagination — the desire to entertain new ideas and perspectives, to leave behind the status quo and take a journey of faith, personal growth, and moral challenge.

(…) Not enough people, Tolkien felt, had the imagination to consider this idea seriously, nor the courage to follow their longing beyond the surface of things. The average bloke was like the Bagginses of The Hobbit, where you know what he “would say on any question without the bother of asking him.” Most folks don’t attempt to draw back the curtain on another realm of meaning — can’t be bothered to penetrate the conventional, comfortable, respectable notions of the way things are in order to discover deeper truths.

 For Tolkien, those important truths included the idea that all of life — whether in suburbia or on an actual battlefield — constitutes an epic, heroic clash between good and evil, dark and light; that everyone’s choices, no matter how “little” of a person they are, matter; and that each individual’s small story is part of a larger, cosmic narrative. Everyone has a part to play and a pilgrimage to make — not necessarily a physical journey, but a moral and spiritual one.

(…) Books like The Hobbit are not necessarily supposed to inspire trips to far-flung lands, but rather to restore the freshness of familiar surroundings right in front of our faces. C. S. Lewis said about this: “Fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.

Once you discover this doorway to realms beyond, you’re able to see the world through a mythological lens. (…) Once you’ve been there and back again, your perspective is forever changed. Everything from the view outside your apartment to your commute to work can become more meaningful, even magical.

What Tolkien understood is that when it comes to life’s most important journeys — quests of spirituality, self-discovery, and self-mastery — location is irrelevant.

The greatest adventures don’t require a passport. (…)

 Certainly there is absolutely nothing wrong with travel when it’s given its proper weight and is stripped of undue moral significance, exaggerated powers, and inflated expectations.

The recalibration of those expectations begins with the acknowledgement that there is nothing inherently valuable about travel. The benefits associated with it, like the chance to expand one’s perspective, grow in maturity, and learn how to handle uncertainty, are certainly real, but do not automatically accrue simply by moving from point A to point B. (…) The value that can be derived from travel only comes to those who engage it with the right mindset and a preexisting self-sufficiency — qualities that can be developed anywhere, and must be formed before you start out. Many people hope that traveling will help them change or find themselves, but if you can’t become the person you want to be right where you are, then you won’t be able to do it when you’re 5,000 miles distant. Because, of course, wherever you go, you bring yourself along with you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, folks who are unhappy with their lives, and look for fulfillment in exotic and ancient lands, merely carry “ruins to ruins”.

(…) Those who travel in search of something they lack, find that whatever was holding them back from attaining it at home, is waiting for them at the airport when they land.

 If one feels that they cannot find themselves or fulfillment without making a certain trip, then they may know for certain that they are setting out with the wrong mindset — the one that says, “If I just had/did X, everything would change.” It’s the same mindset that makes you feel that if you just found the right diet, you’d lose weight; if you just got the right organizing app, you’d get more done; if you just got a better paying job, you’d be happy. In such cases, you’re not actually looking for a tool to kick-start your goal, but a distraction from having to work on it at all.

If you can’t find satisfying adventure in exploring your own backyard, you won’t discover long-lasting satisfaction backpacking through Europe. If you can’t create a rich inner life in suburbia, you won’t develop one in the ashrams of India. If you can’t find freshness in the familiar, and fulfillment in the quests of self-mastery, spirituality, and virtue, then a summer’s trek around the globe won’t ultimately save you from a life of empty dullness.

 Happiness, improvement, and fulfillment can be found in any circumstance, or not at all.

 Travel is often framed as an exercise in courage, and the endeavor of the perennially curious. And yet it can also be an excuse for the exact opposite. Needing the structure of a trip to find excitement and adventure shows a lack of imagination, rather than an abundance of it. And in cases where travel is used to flee the mess, disappointments, and deficiencies of one’s normal life, rather than facing them head on, nothing is more cowardly.

(…) The traveler who embarks without a preexisting structure of self-knowledge and character, intending instead to find it along the way, is set up like a sieve; when the longings produced by his journey arise, they pass right through him. During the trip itself, he feels invigorated, purposeful, full of momentum, and on the path to bigger and better things.

 But he has merely mistaken movement for progress.

 Once he arrives back home, these feelings dry up, and can only be reinvigorated by undertaking another excursion, and getting another hit of the travel rush. The threshold experience, rather than being a doorway to greater things, merely turns into a cycle of its own duplication, an empty series of passport stamps.

Travel then, should ideally be approached the way one does a healthy romantic relationship. Rather than looking for a partner who will fulfill all your desires, you arrive as a fully realized person yourself. Instead of looking for your lover to complete you, they simply expand and enhance the robust foundation of self you’ve already developed.

 In the same way, travel should be seen not as a magic pill, a cure-all, something necessary to your personal development, but an optional enrichment for those already living purposeful, fulfilled lives — an engaging pastime, a hobby like any other, enjoyed by some, and not by all.

 Travel should never be an escape from life; only an enhancement of it.

How much one travels is presented these days as a kind of litmus test: the more you travel, the more courageous, cultured, and non-conventional your life is taken to be; the less you travel, the more your life is assumed to be boring, conventional, and narrow.

 But the lines are not so easily drawn. A man who’s visited every continent may have a soul as shallow as a thumbnail scratch, while a man who’s never left his hometown may have a spirit deeper than an oceanic trench; the man whose Instragram profile is filled with images of ancient ruins and beachside sunsets may have an extremely limited view of life’s possibilities, while the man who lacks a single passport stamp has cultivated an expansive and far-reaching mind; the man who’s bravely ventured across the globe may be frightened stiff of facing himself and grappling with the ordinary, while the man who’s snug at home has bravely faced up to exactly who he is and what his life has amounted to. And vice versa, of course -nor do these types have to be mutually exclusive-.

 But even if you wish to be a man whose travels are as rich as his inner life, start with the latter, rather than the former.

 Seek depth first, then width.

 And know that life’s greatest, most important adventures can be begun right where you’re sitting right now. >>

If you have any doubts about this last sentence, try asking the kids in your life!

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