Change is a morally neutral term, it can be virtuous or vicious. If the meteorologist says that the temperature is going to change, he offers no value unless the direction of the change is also conveyed. Is it going to be warmer or colder? So… does travel make you better or worse? Or do you stay the same?
Mark Twain said,
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
By this he means to convey the virtue of travel, as a broadening experience. Though I would submit that travel can have the opposite effect as well, confirming biases and prejudice. Merely dabbling in the foreign is both patronizing to the foreign and neglectful of deepening one’s appreciation of one’s “little corner”.
Historian Christopher Dawson articulated the value of studying History in a way that echoes Twain. Studying history, like traveling, is a way to break out of one’s parochialism. Dawson says:
“One of the great merits of history is that it takes us out of ourselves – away from obvious and accepted facts – and discovers a reality that would otherwise be unknown to us. There is a real value in steeping our minds in an age entirely different to that which we know: a world different, but no less real – indeed more real, for what we call ‘the modern world’ is the world of a generation, while a culture like that of the Byzantine or the Carolingian world has a life of centuries… History should be the great corrective to that ‘parochialism in time’ which Bertrand Russell rightly describes as one of the great faults of our modern society. ”
But Dawson indicates that there are different ways to study history –one way confirms us in the parochialism of our time, the other way can liberate us from such parochialism. He continues,
“Unfortunately, history has too often been written in a very different spirit. Modern Historians, particularly in England, have frequently tended to use the present as an absolute standard by which to judge the past, and to view all history as an inevitable movement of progress that culminates in the present state of things.”
So to qualify Twain’s remark about travel I would add Dawson’s insight about studying history: that it has to be done in the right way, with the right spirit or mindset, in order to have a positive effect on us. For Americans this is of particular importance, as we “bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.” When we travel do we measure the foreign as relative to American culture, or do we consider and appreciate the foreign on its own terms?
The latter would be more like Twain’s hope for travel, using Dawson’s nuance –immersing oneself in the Other, which is not ours, but is nonetheless real and exists on its own terms; not measuring it as a relatively unfulfilled percentage of us and ours. The prior view is articulated by the Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket:
We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.
Travel does change us, but how it changes us depends upon the spirit with which we embark. Do we travel to show off, to prove ourselves to be sophisticated beyond the rubes we live near? Do we travel in order to deign with our presence the little foreigners who are really imperfect Americans wanting to be made whole by us? Do we travel to escape, because we are uncomfortable in our own shoes, at home, in our own lives? My friends and I used to call that a “Geo-Cure”. It may be the most patronizing of all travel. “Give me your simple magic you benighted savages because I cannot stand my cubicle anymore!” Or do we travel to immerse ourselves in the Other, so we can more truly come home?
English author G.K. Chesterton said about a century ago, “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place…”
While contemporary English author Terry Pratchett writes, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors.” Maybe English writers have such great insight into travel because they live on an island.
Ideally travel takes us out of the parochialism of our own land and culture, but the point is to come home again, to see home in a fresh way, to have a strengthened love of home and hearth while visiting other homes and hearths loved for their own sake by their own people on their own terms, and not as some pale imitation of our own.
Travel can change you, but it is the traveler’s frame of mind before taking the first step that will determine the value of that change. That change can make you more fully yourself, either conforming you in your biases (both of neighbor and of foreigner) or confirming you in your love of home by seeing others in their homes, on their terms.
Author’s note: Leslie Farnsworth has asked a group of writers to participate in a writing challenge:
So I wanted to see if you’d have interest in a round-robin topic exchange, where one blogger a month in the group suggests a general topic and we all publish our take on the topic on the same day on our blogs, linking to the others’ posts. We will all handle a subject completely differently, which is interesting, and people who read one of our blogs are likely to be compelled to see how different people differently approach the same topic.
It was an honor to be asked to contribute.
Here are the other writers, enjoy!