Travel Is Not How You Find Yourself, It’s How You Escape Yourself
I once read someone say that if a person does not have art on their walls, they are running from something. Over time, I’ve found it to be true.
I love to travel.
If there were a list of the top three things that I would like to do in life, to travel more is among them. Over the past few years, I have traveled a lot, and thoroughly enjoyed every second. I went to Italy multiple times, took my sister to Paris, went to Indonesia with my husband. I’ve been to the other side of the country and back multiple times, with many stops in between. I’ve taken road trips and camping trips and beach trips and a honeymoon. We have even more planned this year, and the next.
I figured I should begin with that specific disclaimer so that you did not assume this was a manifesto against traveling. I love traveling.
But I also understand that traveling does not necessarily make me a better person. It has absolutely not been the medium through which I have “found” myself, and I think we should stop telling people that you have to escape to soul search. Becoming who I am has been a process of deep self-inquiry, reading, and mindfully changing my habits… all of which I’ve done most effectively when I wasn’t distracted by an exciting trip.
Self-awareness doesn’t strike you on the Almafi coast. Confusion doesn’t clear when you get far enough from its source. Your soul isn’t on the other side of the world.
The virtue of travel is that it exposes you to other cultures, people and ways of life. It helps develop a global mindset, it puts things into perspective. It’s exciting and fulfilling in its own way. It’s also a status symbol. It sets you apart. It makes you nomadic, and interesting. It can make you think you are beyond the norms your peers have fallen beholden to.
But none of those things help you understand who you are, though they are all enlightening in their own ways. If traveling does fundamentally change you, it’s only because you’ve done some important self-work while you were there. But it’s work you can do anywhere, and very few people actually get around to it when there’s a new city to explore and world to get lost in.
Have you ever met someone who has come back from a long trip abroad, suddenly clear on everything that they need to change in their lives, and ready to begin once the jet lag has worn off? Of course you haven’t. Because it usually doesn’t happen that way.
Traveling helps you temporarily forget about your responsibilities and terse relationships and the problems you have yet to resolve. It is a way to insert something new and exciting into your life. Though there’s nothing wrong with that, we shouldn’t forget that traveling is, quite literally, a means of taking your necessities and running away — albeit temporarily—without much consideration for what’s waiting for you when you return… which is your life.
Emerson kind of said this when said traveling is like taking “ruins to ruins.”
“Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
There was an article a number of years ago that was quite popular, by a writer named Kellie Donnelly, The Hardest Part of Traveling That Nobody Talks About, in which perhaps for the first time on a large scale, she said what everyone experienced and so few people ever said:
The hard part is that you come home. You have to return, eventually. You have to settle somewhere. Or you don’t. You can spend the entirety of your life moving from place to place. Or you can, but you should not expect that your problems will not follow you there.
In conclusion, she wrote: “once you’ve done your obligatory visits for being away for a year; you’re sitting in your childhood bedroom and realize nothing has changed.”
Jamie Varon, the CEO of Shatterboxx, is someone who has lived abroad, traveled extensively, and just last year picked up her life in L.A. to live in Europe with her husband. (They spent the summer in the South of France, and they’re now in Cannes, getting ready for their next move.)
However, she’s transparent about the year she spent prior to her travels that she, well, got her shit together. She paid off her debt, started healing her self-image issues, and found real freedom… but only because she dealt with her reckoning first.
“Traveling as a means of escape doesn’t work. You’re still you whether you’re marveling in front of the Eiffel Tower or not. In fact, traveling to escape often exacerbates the problems, because then you’re unhappy in front of the Eiffel Tower, disappointed and thinking this was supposed to solve your problems,” she tells me. “I think travel enriches a life in a big way, because it expands your mind. Traveling has made me a more empathetic person, a less cocky American, and traveling has humbled me… but it’s very hard to see those parts of travel when you’re not right with yourself.”
She continued: “When what you really need to do is tell yourself the truth, build up the foundation of your own life with good, healthy habits, and find a way to be happy no matter where you are in the world. Travel becomes entirely different when you’re not using it as a crutch. I cleaned up my life before I traveled and it was the best decision I ever made. I wanted to enjoy my life instead of be stuck in the mess of it wherever I go. I wanted to know myself and what made me happy before I went out and searched for it. That was everything to me. And, it has made the experiences richer, the gratefulness deeper, and the joy much more pure.”
Travel certainly adds value to your life in that it offers you experience. Unique experience. Experience that could very well shift the way that you see the world and your place within it. Experience that could very well tell you something about customs and norms and how you’d prefer to live. Maybe you’ll come home with some of the habits and language you learned. Maybe you’ll have an interaction that impacts you forever. Maybe you stuff a few souvenirs into a suitcase and call it a day.
Regardless, none of those things actually do what most people say travel is going to do, and that’s make your real life better.
If I traveled when I had relationship issues, I still had relationship issues when I was gone. If I traveled when I was anxious, I was still anxious when I arrived. (In fact, traveling while things weren’t going well at home almost always made it impossible to really savor the trip.) Travel was a distraction, because it was more the idea of it that made me feel better than the actual doing of it.
I’m so glad that I have gone where I have gone. I hope that I will be able to explore so much more of the world as the years go on.
But I also hope that it can be better communicated that traveling is not the means in which you will discover your soul. Whenever you go, there you are — and you find yourself where you meet yourself, which is anywhere.
Invest in figuring the hard stuff out first and travel later, when you can be self-aware and stable and at peace. Or travel while you do it, I don’t really care, just don’t expect a long flight and tight suitcase and days wandering and looking at things to be a salve to your wounds. It is often more a distraction than it is the healing.