Three reasons travelling is not ‘just a means of escape.’
You’ve heard it before: don’t expect to run to another country and ‘find yourself’ there.
It is a powerful argument that has gained increasing exposure and traction, with a laudible purpose of encouraging people to engage with themselves and their feelings.
However, it is also a message that should be appropriated with caution, and in this article I’ll explain why.
Before I delve into the three main reasons that this way of thinking makes me deeply uncomfortable, I shall begin by saying that I do broadly agree with the statement that travel can be a distraction.
Yes, travel can be a distraction, just like over-eating, shopping, binge-drinking, drug-taking, binge-watching TV - or any other activity, can be used as a means of ignoring your feelings.
In short, I agree that it is unhealthy to engage with any activity as a means of putting off a dialogue with yourself. I just don’t agree with anything else the ‘travel is a distraction’ argument promotes.
This is because, to put fancy words on it, there exists many different ontologies (ways of understanding life) and epistemologies (ways of understanding how we come to know things).
So far as I have seen, there are commonly three key points people make when arguing travel is escapism:
- Travel doesn’t make your ‘real life’ better.
- It isn’t a means of discovering your soul.
- Self actualisation is work; thinking-based work.
While on the surface these seem to be reasonable observations, I believe there are other ways of understanding ‘real life’, the ‘soul’, and the ‘self’.
They say: It doesn’t make your real life better.
I say: What is ‘real life’ anyway?
This point, for me, is actually the most emotive of the three. The ‘real life’ narrative grinds my gears because it assumes that there is some kind of ‘fake life’ that it is possible to be living. That we can, on demand, move from a ‘real’ existence to an ‘unreal’ one.
In reality, all of your experiences — conventional or no — are real experiences, and make up parts of your real life. Everything you do, everywhere you go, you are living your real life. Travel, if you go, is part of that real life — however you choose to live it.
Perceived responsibilities, trajectories, or ways of living are just that… Perceptions. There is no one ‘real’ type of existence. There are many types of existence and they are all ‘real’.
In fact, the more you travel the more you realise just how many types of existence there are on this planet; some just fall outside the bounds of the Western norm. But that’s OK. Life is an exploratory journey, not a predetermined path you’re expected to tread. Take the pressure off and enjoy the ride.
They say: It isn’t a means of discovering your soul.
I say: Who says my soul is waiting to be discovered?
As much as I believe nature has a big part to play in determining the people we grow into, nurture —including self-nurture, is just as influential.
I do not believe that my ‘soul’, ‘true self’, or whatever you choose to call it, is patiently waiting and fully formed, to be discovered. You have no intrinsic and inalienable soul; you are a creative process. An iteration. Your true self (if there is just one self) is made and remade throughout your life through a process you are actively involved in. Part of that active engagement, and key to that process of creation, is experience.
They say: self actualisation is work; thinking based work.
I say: Experience in the world is as valuable as cognitive engagement.
How many people that you’ve met who have travelled have convinced you that they truly believed a trip abroad would actually solve everything?
No, your problems will not disappear without you embracing them and putting effort in. Yes, self actualisation (if that is your problem) is work. It involves observation and introspection, but the idea that you can self actualise without experience makes my mind boggle.
The emphasis on human knowledge as the sum of cognitive process is rooted deep in Western philosophical tradition. The primary culprit is Rene Descartes’ — ‘I think, therefore I am.’
But there are other valuable ways of making sense of how we come to know things. Phenomenology, for example, prioritises experience in the world as the primary means by which we come to know things and understand our world.
Every experience and interaction with any ‘actor’ (e.g., person, place, object), mediated through our sensory perception, comes to form a fabric of experiences in the world — our ontology and epistemology.
Yes, we think, but not before we experience. It is our experiences that teach us the bounds and limitations of our world, ourselves and of that around us. With that in mind, variety of experience is fundamental to pushing the boundaries of the possible and acceptable. All experiences are valid.
If we understand experiences as fundamental to our development and actualisation, travel experiences form an integral part of who we become — whether we travel with ‘intention’ to solve our problems or not.
You won’t find yourself travelling, you’ll make yourself — deliberately or unwittingly. And that is self actualisation in the purest form.
Think big. Be brave. Share.