Eat, Pray, Spend
August 4, 2011

Travel Guides

Image by Evil Yoda via Flickr

Bookslut‘s Jessica Crispin, writing for The Smart Set, dismisses the popular narrative of travel as a guaranteed path to self-discovery:

People love to talk about how certain things rewire the brain, now that we can track these sorts of things with neuroimaging. Inevitably we must qualify which of these things are good and which are bad. (Violent pornography rewires the brain: bad. Travel rewires the brain: good.) But our brains are rewiring themselves all the time. Our brains rewire when we eat a peanut butter sandwich.

There are things that extensive travel teaches you, such as how not to be afraid, or at least how to tell the difference between times you should have fear and times there’s no need for it. It teaches you how to discard things you don’t need, whether that be a couple of shirts so you can bring back all the books you bought, or your need for security and certainty. Using that information in everyday life is the tricky part. I’m not saying it should not be done, that it’s a worthless exercise. Travel is a choice. You go or you don’t. Staying at home offers as many opportunities for growth and transformation and brain rewiring and whatever other trademarked terms you’d like to use here. If you’re the type of person who is more scared of staying home than wandering back out there, it perhaps holds more.

A girl goes out into the world to find herself. Only she finds she’s the same person in Argentina as she is back home, with all the same flaws, the same obnoxious behaviors, the same judgmental nature. Now she just happens to have some pictures of herself standing next to Eva Perón’s tomb. That’s not as good of a story. It probably won’t sell any books, or plane tickets. But it’s more honest.

Seneca actually made a related point 2,000 years prior in the 28th letter from Letters from a Stoic:

Do you think you are the only person to have had this experience? Are you really surprised, as if it were something unprecedented, that so long a tour and such diversity of scene have not enabled you to throw off this melancholy and this feeling of depression? A change of character, not a change of air, is what you need.

[...]

How can novelty of surroundings abroad and becoming acquainted with foreign scenes of cities be of any help? All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile. And if you want to know why all that running about cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you.

I’ll only add that there’s something kind of ugly and narcissistic in an old-fashioned colonial sense about this notion of “finding yourself” through travel; as if all those people on the other side of the world are just sitting around waiting for another white American who they can self-actualize. As if the value of visiting another place is not in seeing another side of history and human experience in all of its richness and inconceivable variety, but in catching a reflection of yourself from a different angle.

If you go abroad that wrapped up in your own head, I wouldn’t hold my breath for any grand spiritual revelation. At best you might construct some shallow, disposable facsimile of revelation, so that it might discharge its narrative obligations and then shuffle off the stage. Maybe when business class pilgrims and couchsurfing conquistadors say they’re looking for themselves, that’s what they really mean: they want the kind of quick and easy enlightenment that they can sum up in an anecdote or a book proposal, that reminds them of why they’re great and should just keep doing what they’re doing.

That sounds more like anesthetic to me than revelation, which strikes me as being a lot harder and scarier. But the good news is it’s a lot more valuable than a week in Prague. Better yet, you don’t even need to be able to afford a plane ticket.

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