Take Your Big Trip to Suffer, and in That Truly Live

The author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr Frankl, wrote in his great tome about the purpose of suffering as a way to find meaning in life. Dr. Frankl’s own suffering and witnessing of immense suffering at four concentration camps during World War II was the foundation for his book and life’s work.

It seems incongruous to recommend traveling to suffer since traveling is a dreamful escape for so many — it would obviously be so much better than what you are experiencing right now, that it could only be good. Travel requires you to leave the status quo and be more open to suffering, and in some ways, even seek it out. In that suffering, your meaning and fortitude will become clear.

Pristine beach in Goa Photo by ©Take Your Big Trip

But what is suffering? Certainly we’re not going throw ourselves towards a snake while on a jungle hike in Costa Rica or get out of the Land Rover on safari or land in Syria right now. That would be pretty stupid because those are dangerous actions without any purpose.

It took me a long time to truly understand what the concept of “suffering” was because I have such a good life. In traveling, there didn’t seem many opportunities to “suffer” as a Western tourist. On the road, there was whole systems set up for my comfort and safety. I could choose at any time to get off the street, hire a driver, stay in a comfortable hotel, eat McDonalds, and avoid any “shady” looking street or people. I always had enough money — and when I didn’t — I could call my family to wire me some. I could always enter the tourism bubble, how could I really “suffer?”

All became clear when I recently watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Father Richard Rohr. He said,

“Suffering is any time we are not in control.”

In his words, the definition finally rang true for me. There are many, many of those out of control moments on a trip. With this definition, I realized have suffered a lot when I traveled.When I reflect on those moments where I felt out of control, I realize it is in these suffering moments that my fortitude and path were revealed.

Why suffer in travel? Because, according to Dr. Frankl, that’s where we get to our essence. No matter how bad any of our circumstance we find our freedom in the choice of how to respond and that’s the gift that propels us forward. In each choice, we strengthen a muscle of attitude and action.

Are we going to think and act well or are we going to think and act poorly? Suffering is the garden of opportunity to become the person we want to be. If we want to be more patient, then traveling to a country where our patience can be challenged — like anywhere with a different sense of time — may be what we need to find meaning. There we have will opportunities to think and act like a patient person while waiting for a train or while the front desk clerk tries to find your reservation.

Dr. Frankl posits that wes hould celebrate achievements in suffering as much as the others. I agree! To change your behavior for the positive is a meaningful accomplishment.However, if you want to be a complete ass, there will be plenty of circumstances while traveling to be that person too. I will always remember a European woman yelling and yelling at an Egyptian train attendant because she had a seat in a different section than her friends. Her reaction was so obnoxious and toxic — harming not only the poor attendant, but also Egyptian’s view of tourists — that I will never forget it. In that moment, she suffered the fear of not sitting with her friends. Instead of seeing the situation as an opportunity to be an independent traveler for 15 hours on a train with plenty of Western tourists, she chose to humiliate a train employee in front of his passengers.
Here are a few ways you can “suffer” while traveling — really they are ways you can be out of control; get out of your comfort zone; learn a lot about yourself; and hopefully better a person on your path.

  • Only buy the plane ticket one way.
  • Plan the rest of your trip when you are in country.
  • Find days in your trip to “get lost” in a city and just wander.
  • Think about when you may feel out of control — like traveling solo, being without your phone, and showing up at a town without a hotel reservation — and do exactly that.
  • Travel as a witness. If you see suffering, reflect on how it makes you feel and seek to understand how the suffering is caused.
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