Most of the time, we talk about travel as an eye-opening experience, life-changing, perspective- enriching, necessary for career success in a globalized world, enjoyable, relaxing, stimulating, etc. We all talk about the personal benefits of travel, and sometimes, more so in Europe I’ve noticed than the US, hostel websites have some good rhetoric about the importance of international exchange. Makes sense when an itty bitty half continent spent most of its time going to war between closest neighbors. In the US, this justification is less than self evident, and isolationist is just kind of part of the culture when you live a million miles from most everything that is significantly different culturally and linguistically (no, I don’t think the South should be its own country), and you tend to remember that people came to the US, and still do, because life wasn’t always so great on the other side of the pond (I’m including people of non-European immigrant ancestry in this statement- America as immigrant society is a pretty common idea most people will relate to). What is the point of all this pontificating on what people think the point of travel is and the cross-cultural difference therein? None of them really hits on what I think is the most compelling reason: Travel can make you a better person.
There, I said it. I know that many people don’t have the opportunity to travel, and I’m not suggesting that travellers are inherently better than non travellers. In fact, I think a lot of serial constant travellers don’t really care about having abiding links with others and can be pretty self-centric as a result. Some of the best people I know have lived in the same county all their lives. Travel is not necessary to being a good person, and I think that’s an important caveat because for those that stress the utility of travel, they can create feelings of resentment among non travellers with such bold claims and risk discriminating against that group for no reason, particularly against those who are less likely to have the resources or to come from a background that encourages travel.
So much literature is all about finding yourself and the self gratification aspect, that you just need to take care of your burning need to see Rome and then you’ll be able to serve others since you’ve taken care of yourself. There’s certainly something to this, and it doesn’t hurt. But it just lumps travel in with a variety of other hobbies people take to quasi spiritual levels, like running or hiking or anything with immediate self-gratification that doesn’t include drugs pretty much.
Travel makes you a better person because it enables you to put on the skin of someone else and walk around in it. In a visceral, immediate way that no movie or guidebook can. There is no better way to cultivate compassion for your fellow man than to realize how much you have in common with people who are from “abroad” or “a foreign country” or “some label you don’t ascribe to yourself.” True, most of your interactions with people from different cultures, depending on the duration of your travel, will be superficial, surface level encounters. But even if the farthest you get in your attempt to understand the host culture is, “Damn, it must be annoying having all these tourists around all the time,” you have still practiced compassion, realized all people are essentially the same, and given a little thought to the world around you instead of being stuck in the me, me, me’s.
Among the reasons why travel makes you a better person, this is pretty high up on the list. We all need to get away from our mental chatter sometimes and appreciate the world around us. Even if all you do when traveling is let one painting, or one view of a new city, or one person’s smile, take you to a new place and out of your typical worries and cares, you are a better person for it. Not just because you’ll feel better, but because little moments of serenity, nirvana, or just plain delight bring us closer to our fellow men, closer to the wonders of Creation, and closer to God. And that’s never a bad thing. Maybe we’ll even realize how small our cares are, how petty our everyday concerns, and have a little moment of wonder and awe.
And now for the number 1 reason- the fact that you realize, just for a moment, that you are a part of a greater whole. That everything that is context for your life has shaped your actions and decisions, and hopefully you feel a little grateful for all the good influences you have benefited from. Hopefully, you realize we are all human together and there’s not much separating you from the strangers you have come to visit but place and time of birth, and in fact you are the stranger too. Getting a sense of this grander scheme, especially though the serendipitous charming moments where you find that cute place to eat or stumble across something amazing to experience just by chance, you feel humbled for a second there. You think, yup, there’s more out there than just my linear, strategic, black and white, map of the world and plan for my life. There is something greater out there that is more than all the Fodors in the world or national Geographic or even Eat pray love could tell me. You realize the value of experience, the wonder of life, and the lovely fact that you only have so much control over it. You appreciate destiny a little bit, and more than anything, you appreciate being alive. If you can learn to value yourown life and those of others, how to live becomes a piece of cake. You don’t need elaborate theorems and philosophies to tell you what to do, you just ned to be grateful for being alive. All the accomplishments, all the love others can give you, all the so-called security in the world is nothing compared to realizing the wonder of life. You don’t need to know the meaning of life, you realize that being alive is just full of meaning every second. Life is beautiful, and I don’t know any better way to realize it than to travel, for myself at least.
Maybe when you stand in awe at the charming medieval city or the rugged mountains or even just the attraction from the town next door you’ve always been meaning to get to, you will realize your humanity, and your divinity, in ways you couldn’t have done if you stayed where you were. Maybe that will get you to pick up the phone and call your mother, put a coin in the beggar’s cup just because you can, if nothing else, infect others with the joy of being alive.
We are all pilgrims on this planet. We were all sent here for a reason, and every day is a miracle. Regardless of your scientific, spiritual, or religious beliefs, if you can’t live every day realizing it is a reason in itself, no matter how boring or eye-opening, you are living far less than your potential. If you can’t stare at the stars in childlike wonder, you are committing a sin not only against humanity but against this whole gorgeous universe. Yes, I know some parts aren’t quite so tasty, and especially if you are traveling to poor or war torn areas it can be tough to think of the good against so much senseless misfortune and evil. But I assure you, the only way you can make the best of your own life is to love it fully and completely, and embrace all its mysteries. And the only way you will make this world a better place is by starting with yourself- all change starts from within. If you aren’t able to take advantage of the chances life gives you and just take a deep breath and realize how beautiful the world is, you are doing a disservice not only to yourself but to those unfortunate enough not to be able to see it either. I’m talking not only about the dead, and those dead in life, I am talking about people who have great pain in their lives like poverty and war. If you miss the beauty of the sunrise or sunset, it is not helping them at all and you are only doing harm to yourself, which is allowing such cruelty to be perpetuated in your own life, as self-inflicted violence.
Don’t prevent yourself from letting the beauty of life in, from putting down your black and white map of the world and letting its full color sink into your soul. Live what is good, beautiful, and true (author unknown, possibly my facebook friend himself). Live the goodness in your own heart when you find it and in the hearts of those that awaken you. Open your eyes, ears, hands to touch, nose to smell, mouth to taste, and soul to be elevated by the wonders of life that surround you. Witness the truth that we are all interconnected, that humans are humans wherever they go, that we are all being carried by something larger than ourselves and life is so largely out of our control yet so full of countless blessings. Realize this, through travel or any other medium, and you will start teaching the world to sing.