Travel as Political Act and Spiritual Practice
Randall S. Frederick
There are three wants which never can be satisfied: that of the rich, who wants something more; that of the sick, who wants something different; and that of the traveler, who says, “Anywhere but here.” – R. W. Emerson
Each year, I make lists. For the longest, I made “resolutions” – which I would always break. Lose this amount of weight, learn to speak this language, become a better person (which, let’s face it, I was bound to break within the first 24 hours). Inevitably I would lapse or forget or fail and so now I tell people that “I make lists” because I’m much better at those. I can just check them off one by one. Complete this task (learn French 101), apply for this scholarship (done!) and ask this girl on a date (sweet!). This year, the list was (and still is) comprised of places that I want to travel to in the United States. By the first week of January, I was already a quarter of the way there, having driven from coast to coast.
My grandfather and my mother (and now I) have “Gypsy blood” – the restless need to see the world, to move, to collect a beauty into our souls that can be obtained only by going anywhere but here. This restlessness, I assume, translates into other areas of life, explaining my controlled impatience, my kinetic energy or even (to some extent) adult-onset Attention Deficit Disorder which altogether force me to make more lists. Grocery lists, timelines, deadlines, Post-it notes, markerboards, timing how long from this lampost to the next – all work together to keep me on track. I’m told I need to be a functional part of society, and to do this, I feel compelled to box myself in.
I hate it. Is it perfectly all right for me to drop pretense and be honest? I hate all of this. Chalk it up to Gypsy blood or an inner artist, the Bohemian inside me snarls at the “squares” who lock us all down but have never tried to see things from the other end of the pool. However you describe it, it was this line of thinking that compelled me to write down 12 cities (one for each month) that I wanted to visit before New Years Eve. I wanted to see things with my own eyes instead of through picture books or travel shows.
Travel can be a political act. I’m not sure we ever really think about that. Travelling forces you to step outside of your natural/learned comfort and see things differently. Even if you never get out of your vehicle, you are inclined to see the land change before you as mountains are traded for desert, then plains, then hills, then the lush swampland. You hang a left and you’re in the Ozarks or the Midwestern breadbasket. A simple right off Main Street takes you to the coastal snows of New England – nothing at all like the arid eternal sunshine of the West. This political act, the changing of spaces, finds a notch in the heart for empathy to grow.
Rick Steves, travel writer and NPR/PBS host, has said that following Sept. 11, 2001, his “focus has shifted. I find it very gratifying to stand in front of 500 generally frightened Americans and tell them what I’ve learned from spending a third of my adult life living out of a carry-on suitcase.” Steves came to see the world as a good place with good people, and nothing at all like what the news would have had you believe. “People are afraid, and I think deep down people don’t want to know what’s out there. I [travelled] knowing it would complicate my life. When people travel, they gain a better appreciation for the gap between the haves and the have-notes, both within our society and between our society and the rest of the world.” Saint Augustine put it another way: “The world is like a book. Those who do not travel read only one page.”
The first time I left the United States, I came back unable to express what I had seen. There was no debriefing, and photographs didn’t do it justice – the desperation I saw in a dying child’s face, the absence of hope in mothers, the primal drive that compels someone to beg. I believe that travel – around the United States, abroad, even across the street – is a way of getting to know God’s family, who are populated with different opinions and cultures, ways of life and understanding. In many ways it seems that those who live away from perpetual entertainment and a barrage of news telling them how awful the world has become are better at this than American tourists. They are better equipped to believe the best in others. It is scary to be sure, as it always is when “our” ways are called into question, our insulated ways and means brought under conviction by simply being around people not like us. It is challenging for us to “give space” to someone else – to make allowance for differences. Which is why I think we are a generation of believers better equipped to become tourists than travellers. Tourists hardly learn anything. They waste time and money, are demanding, ethnocentric, and more likely to trade Instagrams of a sunset than walk among the people of the place they are visiting. They tweet, “Look where I am!” while spending a farmer’s fortune on dinner rather than allow the sacred silence of “anywhere but here” to permeate them. By contrast, travellers fit in and learn, treasuring the experience more than the souvenir.
This is typically the point where you read these words and have already made a judgment. You either agree with what I am saying or have brushed me off as another cantankerous product of hipster culture pontificating I do things so much better than you.
God, I hope not.
I am not encouraging us to be saints in our travel. It’s okay to party, to swim, to do nothing productive. Instead, I am questioning the ways that we value hedonism over tikkun olam, promote what is off the guided schedules and maps instead of where people that we might be afraid of live. I am pointing out where we trade clarity of creation for a Polaroid. Even if we forego Paris for Sudan, if we are still a tourist at heart, we are only a voyeur of the grotesque so that we can go home and feel superior – or worse, thank God for our own blessings without helping someone else. Thoughtful travel is not advertised as part of mainstream tourism and there is a reason why it doesn’t sell. Which is fine, if you want to always take Frost’s road well-travelled. But the alternative? Ah! Now there we come to know travel as a political act as much as spiritual practice. This frame means implementing a broader perspective gained from travel. This frame means responsibility – something that perhaps we are not ready for. It means we stop feeling isolated and begin allowing other places, other people into our hearts – for there is nothing more political than empathizing with and becoming familiar with someone unlike us.