This week I met with my kids’ therapist for a parent consultation and our summer travels came up. I mentioned that, even though change in routine is generally something difficult for some of my kids, everything goes better when we are traveling. She was curious about why this might be. I have a few theories, the topmost being that when we are traveling, I am more relaxed, more flexible, more fun, and just so thrilled to be traveling, that all of that trickles down to the whole family. I think it also has something to do with the fact that I have four extroverted, adventurous kids who constantly ask what we are doing next. They do not all love long car or plane rides, but they travel well and they certainly enjoy experiencing different places and people. They still fight, talk back, complain, and whine, but somehow I see it through rosy lenses, and my responses reflect that. Some have suggested leaving our kids at home when we travel, but I don’t want to, even though traveling with four kids is significantly more expensive, more emotionally exhausting, and generally more difficult. It is so important to me that my children travel and experience other cultures and peoples firsthand. I want my children to be exposed to great beauty - both natural and man-made, and I want them to benefit from the formation and healing of the soul that comes from experiencing that beauty.
Many years ago, someone accused me of traveling in order to run away from my problems. I have thought about this a lot, and I still disagree with him. I am eager to overcome my problems, and I actively seek help and counsel as I am living day to day in Dallas. But I think travel provides a therapy of its own. I think my desire to know peoples and cultures not just through books or films, but with that poetic, experiential knowledge that can only come of being there and soaking it all up is a gift and a calling. It is a pursuit of Beauty, a transcendence of division, and a building of bridges. It fosters human connection, a sense of wonder, and an awareness of our connection with the Divine. I remember standing on the beach as a child, overwhelmed by the vastness and power of the ocean, silent with awe. Travel allows us to renew that wonder and awe all through our lives. And it is not only good for our souls, but, as Seneca says, “travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind” as well. We think new thoughts, expand our intellects, discover and learn in ways otherwise impossible.
Travel provides the opportunity for the birth of friendships - or even just wonderful one-off conversations - between individuals who might otherwise know nothing but the other's stereotype. At one point I was talking to an older man who harbored vehement hatred for a particular country; when I asked if he had ever been there, he replied, “Oh, no! I was close enough, and I would give one square foot of Fort Worth for that whole damned country!” But he knew nothing of its people or its culture personally, as I did, and I loved it. I love what Aldous Huxley said: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” It is by experiencing other cultures from the inside that we gain respect for the unfamiliar and see that there are more similarities between us than we realized and that there is more good than bad in the world.
Travel also provides us with exposure to amazing and varied instances of beauty, each one of which is a point for the good guys and a reminder in the midst of all the chaos and the evil that we are still winning. I am much richer and happier for watching gypsies whirl around their campfires on the Galilean shore and sweating honey off in Russian banyas. I moved closer to the good by drinking mint tea all night with Bedouins before climbing Mount Masada with some new Australian friends in time to see the sun rise. I think it is essential that we pursue beauty if we want to encourage a love of truth and goodness. It is true that there is beauty all around us, that we can find it at home, but a different door is opened in one's soul when confronted with the Hagia Sophia or the Acropolis. We need to be awestruck, to be reminded that there is so much more out there than our own little worlds, and of how good it is. As Gustave Flaubert said, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
I believe that we ourselves also grow more beautiful with every adventure. Martin Buber wisely recognized that “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Each journey works new and unexpected change in us. Each builds virtue - empathy, patience, active love, and dependence on God in a way we could not have anticipated. And the “secret destinations” also involve our influence on and interconnectedness with others. In 1997, on an Italian train, I had an hour-long conversation with a man whom the Holy Spirit has since brought regularly to my mind in my prayers. I am sure those prayers are effectual, and for some reason, it was I who was called to meet him on that train and pray for him for the rest of my life. I recall many others I have met, many who I developed lasting and meaningful friendships with, who I hold in prayer and whose love has made the world more beautiful. And as much as I love seeing beautiful places, traveling is always more about the beautiful people - people I know and love and long to reconnect with, and people I have yet to meet and learn about and from, not to mention the connection that is fostered within your own family while traveling together.
Some write off the possibility of travel because they are under the impression that they could never afford it. Unless you are truly poverty-stricken, I believe you can make it happen. There are so many opportunities to work abroad, to farm abroad, and to volunteer abroad. My grandmother got passages across the Atlantic on freighters for next-to-nothing and did whatever she had to to see the world. As a grad student, I saved every penny, ate tuna on toast every day, and managed to make my way to Europe every year. I slept in Finnish forests, lived on French bread and cheese, and spent some time in a tepee in Provence. As a newly married couple Marc and I worked on an organic farm in exchange for room and board, accepted the charitable hospitality of monks and kind strangers, and foraged for pine nuts in parks. Now, with a family, it is more challenging than ever, but it is not impossible. Not having loads of money can lead to making more human connections, having more adventures, being forced out of your comfort zone and trying new things.
According to Saint Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” I hope you all travel well and widely this year and for years to come, reading with relish this gorgeous, exhilarating, enlightening book!