The flight was twenty minutes late leaving the gate, an annoying but common reality of modern travel. The doors shut and a friendly flight attendant kindly asked me to turn off my electronic tether. I pulled out a magazine, travel of course, and began scanning the articles. Nowadays so much of any travel magazine is advertorial that it almost doesn’t make sense to buy them. But then, just before the Visit Cool Place ad and after the Visit Really Cool Place ad I found a quiet unassuming piece written by a favorite travel writer. In it was a famous phrase I’d long since forgotten but which stirred something deep in the well of my soul. The phrase in question was written 149 years ago by President Abraham Lincoln in the nation-changing Emancipation Proclamation, that all so important document that in one fell swoop marked the end to more than 200 years of slavery in the Unites States. In it Mr. Lincoln makes the case for freedom by a simple but mighty phrase, to appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”
I love this phrase. I love it for its simplicity, its power and its undeniable truth. By nature I’m a misanthropic, pessimistic person. Probably the result of a tumultuous upbringing and spending way too much time reading Camus and Sartre as a child; but it’s nonetheless the backbone of my personality. Oddly enough, so is my extroversion. I remember once at my first job my boss made everyone take the personality test Myers Briggs. Out of 150 employees I had the highest extroversion rating; the facilitator called me the “Flaming E” with a chuckle and resounding guffaws from coworkers. So what does an extroverted misanthrope want more than anything else in life? To be proven wrong.
I want to know what people are really like, what moves them. I want to believe that we as a race are fundamentally good instead of tragically flawed. I want to believe that our souls are not doomed to an eternity of fire and brimstone or, for the Eastern believers, endless rounds of reincarnation. I think it is that quest, what some would call tilting at windmills, is what drives me to travel the most.
Some call travel escapism, a way to get away from whatever demons plague you at home causing you to flee to remote areas of the planet. For many people this is the only way to explain rampant, unforgiving travel. But I truly think it’s the exact opposite. Instead of running away from something, I think I’m running towards it.
Trapped in a small world of work, family, repeat; home owners associations and grocery stores; trips to the dog park and making sure the DVR records ‘Top Chef’ – this is the life most of us lead. You know what, I love it. I chose it for a reason, but I also realize it is limiting. If change is not routinely sought, we begin to forget that an entire world exists around us. We forget that people make $2 a day in Laos; we forget that somewhere in rural Spain an old man is making aioli by hand; we forget that billions of people live and die in a way we will never know. More than that, we forget that around the world people are awesome.
Instead of running away from anything, I run towards the fulfillment of an existential quest to prove that people are fundamentally good. More than that, that people are amazing. It’s a lifelong quest, of that there can be no doubt. The planet is too immense and the experiences too varied to ever truly complete the quest, but I think it is the search that adds a certain level of sanity to my life. It prevents melancholy and instead breeds optimism, albeit a sometimes forced variety to which I am not accustomed.
I know it’s not even close to what Lincoln was describing, but for me travel is much more than seeing pretty things, embarking on cool adventures and eating exotic foods. I love all of that, don’t get me wrong, but it’s so much more base and primal than that. Travel, for me at least, not only shows me the better angels of my fellow man, but it proves to me that my own nature has its fair share of better angels as well. That cardinal realization is something that can never be quantified, explained fully or blithely dismissed. This need must simply be acknowledged and thanked. I must be thankful that I found a way to appease my soul, for so many others will never find their own way to accomplish the same and learn to trust their own personal angels.
Thanks for listening to my weekly dose of travel philosophy – What drives you to travel?