A reason for travel (or not) obviously has to be personal. While I am still shaking off the last of my long held beliefs that EVERYONE must travel, I realise that it is not for everyone. It doesn’t guarantee deep personal insight or even an open mind. I know many people with inspiringly open minds who have not travelled or who have little desire to. Likewise I know people who have travelled whose minds are very very narrow and closed. I know friends who have travelled and come back unwilling to really go again because it just wasn’t very pleasant.
So as I sat in a Tibetan guesthouse several months back, my family huddled around the small fire to hold off the bitter temperatures, I wondered why I go.
To get to some point of clarity I ask why, then I ask why again, then once or twice more for good measure until (hopefully) I am staring into the face of the true reason.
So I start with the simple – it is rich and exciting. Great – but WHY do this. The richness and excitement hopefully leads to a little more wisdom about how this world and its people work. But WHY? So I am a more compassionate human being? But WHY that? So what?
I keep digging and arrive at something motivated as much from fear as from adding richness to my world and the world of those around me. If I am honest there is a fear of missing out on something. Of getting to those final days and saying “I wish I had done more….”
As a young wistful child I was fascinated by the romanticism of being a sailor or truck driver. Moving, seeing, experiencing, changing, tasting different worlds. Cramming as much as I could into these precious years so I faded into the twilight with the satisfaction that I left no stone unturned. I did the ride well. To me doing it well meant seeing as much as I possibly could. Diversity. Range of experience.
I think in my adolescence I erred towards the Hunter S Thompson side of this mantra:
“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!!”
Obviously one can mature in their life philosophies so I think on a deeper level it was less Hunter S Thompson and more Henry David Thoreau – and his experience living isolated in the woods on Walden Pond. Thoreau was a writer in 1850s who became a little disillusioned with the modern concept of work (and modern society in general) so he stepped off the treadmill and took up life in a small isolated farmhouse. Thoreau wrote a book about his experience – called Walden. It is hard, heavy reading. He begins with some no-punches-held swipes at the speed, shallowness and superficiality of modern society. This was 1845. He would have dropped dead if he saw our world today. So he enters the woods, sets up life in a small house on the edge of Walden Pond and gets on with the job of just living. Through the mist of verbose old English prose gems start to emerge. Like his discourse on the joys of just sitting in the sunlight creeping across his kitchen…..all day. Beautiful turns of phrase about that time being lived fully – while we in the rushed society would call a day sitting in the sun as “wasted time”. I must admit I skipped a few pages and jumped around (and still have many electronically dog-eared pages to go back to in my ibook). But you get his picture and his purpose pretty quickly and it makes you think long and hard about exactly what it is you want to spend your days doing. At its deepest it is about what it means to truly live a life.
While I was intrigued by the question of whether I myself could actually live off my own wits in the woods or be alone for long periods of time – the reality is that I am too social. I crave humanity and interaction so a year alone is just not in my DNA. I would want to talk and drink and discuss the world. But there was something else about Thoreau that struck me. It was the reason that he left the woods behind and emerged once again into society. It was this:
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live and could not spare any more time for that one.”
I will never forget the first time this was presented to me. Not the reason why he went INTO the woods but the reason he came out. I was standing in a small crowded hall at a graduation ceremony for a group of trainee wilderness instructors. The CEO of our training organisation used Walden as means of farewelling those graduates and sending them off into the world to live more lives – and he quoted those words. They struck me with a physical intensity and I felt a wave of realisation. I was standing next to my dear platonic friend Mel and I tapped her foot as if to say “That’s it!!”
She smiled back in mutual understanding. Strange that now that same women sits a few metres away from me in this Tibetan guesthouse writing her journal as our three children play happily outside and read books by the fire. The poor girls never had a hope of a routine life.
So here I am. Chasing as many lives as I can lead before the clock stops ticking, the sand runs out, the fire ebbs. One eye on the world around me and how amazing it is – the other eye on the clock. Checking to make sure that the requisite number of lives are led.
But this desperation to fill the vessel also comes at a price. At times the urgency to see it all becomes debilitating. So that if I DON’T see something I feel like I have let myself down on a grand scale. So when we hit a new city I just want to burst out the door and pound the pavement. I want to wander down every alley I see and into every temple or shop. But this is not what 6 year old considers a good time. After the 17th Gothic church there is only so much there little minds can take in. This stained glass window looks just like the last 17 stained glass windows. They also tire out – so when we suggest another day exploring Paris we are sometimes met with groans of dismay.
And fair enough. The girls do a remarkable job of staying on the game and allowing Mel and me out. While I understand their need to check out and just do craft for a whole day – I can’t reconcile it with my deep philosophical urgency to fill the vessel to the brim. So the act of sitting in a Parisian lounge room while the Louvre beckons from merely 100’s of metres away sends me spare. I get an almost physical pain that yells from deep inside “GET OUT THERE!!!!!”
And then suddenly I will remember Thoreau. Sitting in the sun for 8 hours and I wonder how much of this urgency is my life philosophy or a shallower thing. That thing that infects all fast modernised societies – the need to be busy. The need to fill the quiet void with activity – no matter how mindless. Retail therapy, the idle web surfing, the 27th Facebook check (in an hour), the emails, the phone calls, the planning, the tinkering. Anything but stare into the void of self and ask “What is truly important to me?”
This was one of my journey goals. To be comfortable in nothingness. To be able to be in a place and not feel the urge to move, see, go, do. God knows I am still working on that one. In the meantime I will keep filling the vessel but keep reminding myself to look down at the craft being created in the Parisian lounge room. The tinfoil doll’s dress, with cut out chip packet mosaic. The “set up” of plastic toys. I will keep looking to my little Buddhas (my three girls) who remind me daily, constantly, eternally that maybe my mindset needs to sometimes shift.
Fill the vessel – yes. But also stop and watch the sun creep across the lounge room floor. All day.
Notre Dame will be there tomorrow.
To be ok with nothingness. You’ve nailed it Matt. That is a great life goal for this generation of multi taskers. Lovely as always to read your musings.
yes I comprehend the dilemma. Or is it. Well said whatever.
Asking the questions opens up your world: acceptance of what is and what is possible is never ending. That can be both comforting and daunting. Thanks for sharing.