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?
8 thoughts on “Better Angels of Our Nature”
I can’t begin to tell you how much this post has affected me. It’s possibly the best explanation of the reason for traveling that I’ve seen expressed. Beautifully put.
Wow, kind kind words, thank you Linda.
I love this post, Matt. I feel the depth and truth in your words. Well said.
I love words. I am amazed by serendipity. In my travels and even in my life, more and more lately, I’ve found I oddly meet the right person or hear the right words at the right time. Today this post was “my message” of sorts. The phrase “better angels of our nature” was just what I needed to think about at this very moment after embroiling in quite a debate about healthcare in the U.S. and how it seems to be every man for himself.
What a lovely reminder to think of Lincoln’s words and how they apply to so many aspects of our lives, including travel, and to remember thatpeople are fundamentally good and there are so many examples of this in every corner of the world.
Kathy, I really appreciate that, thank you and I’m so glad the phrase helped you too!
Well written post Matt. I sometimes wonder if people just travel to collect fridge magnets and bragging rights.
What motivates me is experiences, we are so isolated and safe here in the bottom of the world its easy to forget how different other cultures are. I plan to make travel a priority still once our daughter is born, to show her new places and give her experiences beyond that of what we get here.
In my opinion, people seem to be good in inverse proportion to their wealth and power. That’s not universally true, of course, but in my experience, wherever I go, normal, everyday people seem to be more empathic than those whose focus in life has been on acquiring wealth and status or worrying too many years into the future. Yes, we all need the basics, but beyond that, it’s mostly baggage. If I’ve learned anything living in Cambodia, that’s it.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a hypocrite. I was thrilled when a great bagel and donut shop opened up in Sihanoukville. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when a restaurant that knew how to make proper nachos and enchiladas came to town (complete with corn chips from California). I get furious when the power goes out for hours on end and I’m ecstatic that we have high speed internet now. That’s some of my baggage, but at least it’s easier to set it down and enjoy simple pleasures than it used to be.
I can’t tell you what drives me to travel, not really.
I *think* I am driven by curiosity and wanting to know what exists in the world outside of myself. Perhaps I feel that my world in my home country is too small, too limitied.
Or perhaps I travel because I like really good food.
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