Travel Is No Cure
Something else is.
“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” — Seneca
“Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” — Socrates
I’ve been enjoying Adam Grant’s new podcast. One gem from the first episode is: “If you don’t look back at yourself and think ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year or two ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year or two.”
I have a sneaking suspicion that is how I will feel re-reading some of these posts. And, if the above is of any consolation, I will continue to do so as I progress through life in any number of areas.
I wrote about how this wasn’t to be a year-long vacation. I was determined to make this year into something. I knew it would be a year of transition and learning. Mostly, I imagined that stepping this far, physically and mentally, away from the lives we had been living would provide clarity for our next steps. A new perspective that wasn’t the race we had become accustomed to living.
Arriving in Taipei has reminded me we are soon ending this small chapter in our lives. So, when I started thinking about this, I began to think that we hadn’t found that clarity. When thinking more patiently about it, the clarity begins to show itself. There is something of a slow drip with most learning in life, accompanied by small sparks along the way.
When I read Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius/Letter 28 on Travel as a Cure for Discontent (pasted below for reference and reading), I knew I found a nerve. One within me, that likely exists in many others. One that shows what some people may be assuming about our motivations to travel, while others might outrightly reject this whole notion of non-cure.
Keeping it short and simple, our motivations to travel were mostly two-fold. As mentioned above, to take a step back and away from the lives we had been living, in order to make more fully formed decisions on what we wanted our future to look like. Meanwhile, seeing the world, tasting the food, meeting the people, and living a simple and sparing life on the road.
We were not running from anything, but we knew the travel would set forth some amount of change within us. It must, or it wasn’t much of a striking experience. That said, this world is becoming so very small. Getting out into it thinking you will find a truly unique experience seems to be getting harder and harder to do. I think about my Great Grandparents who traveled around the world at a time that must have involved so much more roughing it and difficulty along the way than what we have faced.
The Internet tends to solve most of our problems. That, and a mostly reliable electricity grid everywhere we’ve been. Imagining my GGpa and GGma in remote lands back then, my question is very simple: What level of trust was required? I imagine your experience to be so different than our own. We have hundreds of reviews to read before laying down to sleep somewhere, we Google how to get elsewhere. Did the level of trust required to travel the globe as you did lead to more serendipitous and raw experiences that seem out of reach in today’s hyper-connected world?
The world is becoming a slightly more homogenous place. The things for sale in so many cities are the same the world over. The cafes with the best ratings look like Brooklyn or LA, the world over. I’m (way) oversimplifying, but the trend is visible. Which made me think of this:
“The faster you can get from Dallas to Honolulu, the faster Honolulu is becoming the same place as Dallas and the less reason to make the trip. Tokyo has become the same place as Los Angeles. As you go faster and faster from place to place, they are all becoming the same place.” -Alan Watts
Despite all that, I wouldn’t trade this year for anything. I think about my attitude when we first started the trip, and there was still a lot of frustration in me. The same frustration that I think many friends saw in me every day in the last couple years in New York. Before then, everything external was at fault. Reality: it wasn’t New York, it wasn’t my work, it wasn’t in any relationships or a busy schedule, it wasn’t external. It was me.
I had been seeking change, but I didn’t know what change I wanted. Worse yet, I wasn’t leading the change myself. I may still not know, or ever know, exactly what solution for which I was looking. But, I am better at listening to myself, I’m more patient with myself and others, more deliberate in my practice, and confident about some of the simple things I demand to have each day: Exercise and reading, for example. Something that is productive and helpful. Those, and a good laugh.
Listening to yourself and taking risks on new things with great people might be a simple formula for my own mental health. My move to New York was one such risk, and it was one of the best things I have ever done in my life. This year felt like a risk too, it also may look like a distraction to others, but I’m quite happy with where we’re at now.
Travel-as-healing may be one method that works, but our year is just that, a year. Taking a step back requires time, the one resource for which there is no way to claw back more. Before taking a journey like ours, ask yourself what it is you’re trying to get. Read Seneca’s words below and remember that your companion each and every day of your life is none other than yourself.
We’ve begun planning what our next few steps are, and I’m excited to begin sharing more of those plans just as soon as it makes sense to share. As always, thanks for reading.
Picture: Taken from Annapurna Base Camp
Moral Letters to Lucilius/Letter 28 (Emphasis mine)
Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, Lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.
Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.
Reflect that your present behavior is like that of the prophetess whom Vergil describes; she is excited and goaded into fury, and contains within herself much inspiration that is not her own:
The priestess raves, if haply she may shake
The great god from her heart.
You wander hither and yon, to rid yourself of the burden that rests upon you, though it becomes more troublesome by reason of your very restlessness, just as in a ship the cargo when stationary makes no trouble, but when it shifts to this side or that, it causes the vessel to heel more quickly in the direction where it has settled. Anything you do tells against you, and you hurt yourself by your very unrest; for you are shaking up a sick man.
That trouble once removed, all change of scene will become pleasant; though you may be driven to the uttermost ends of the earth, in whatever corner of a savage land you may find yourself, that place, however forbidding, will be to you a hospitable abode. The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place. Live in this belief: “I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country.”
If you saw this fact clearly, you would not be surprised at getting no benefit from the fresh scenes to which you roam each time through weariness of the old scenes. For the first would have pleased you in each case, had you believed it wholly yours. As it is, however, you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek, — to live well, — is found everywhere.
Can there be any spot so full of confusion as the Forum? Yet you can live quietly even there, if necessary. Of course, if one were allowed to make one’s own arrangements, I should flee far from the very sight and neighborhood of the Forum. For just as pestilential places assail even the strongest constitution, so there are some places which are also unwholesome for a healthy mind which is not yet quite sound, though recovering from its ailment.
I disagree with those who strike out into the midst of the billows and, welcoming a stormy existence, wrestle daily in hardihood of soul with life’s problems. The wise man will endure all that, but will not choose it; he will prefer to be at peace rather than at war. It helps little to have cast out your own faults if you must quarrel with those of others.
Says one: “There were thirty tyrants surrounding Socrates, and yet they could not break his spirit”; but what does it matter how many masters a man has? “Slavery” has no plural; and he who has scorned it is free, — no matter amid how large a mob of over-lords he stands.
It is time to stop, but not before I have paid duty. “The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation.” This saying of Epicurus seems to me to be a noble one. For he who does not know that he has sinned does not desire correction; you must discover yourself in the wrong before you can reform yourself.
Some boast of their faults. Do you think that the man has any thought of mending his ways who counts over his vices as if they were virtues? Therefore, as far as possible, prove yourself guilty, hunt up charges against yourself; play the part, first of accuser, then of judge, last of intercessor. At times be harsh with yourself. Farewell.
Originally published at danielhatke.com.