“Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy.”
I can hear you now. “Aw, what does that old guy know when there’s Mayan ruins to see, the Himalayas to climb, cafes and intrigue in Bruges, and weekends that stay forever in Vegas?”
But I confess, I’m with TJ, and not just because I’ve got a crush on the guy — a real Renaissance man!
The Seeds of Discontent
I just think he made a good point above, and several more, in a letter he sent to his nephew Peter, ironically from Paris, in 1787. In that letter he went on to say,
“When men of sober age travel, they gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country, but they are subject ever after to recollections mixed with regret—their affections are weakened by being extended over more objects, and they learn new habits which cannot be gratified when they return home. Young men who travel are exposed to all these inconveniences in a higher degree, to others still more serious, and do not acquire that wisdom for which a previous foundation is requisite, by repeated and just observations at home.”
It may be jarring to read these words today, and feel like something well worth dismissing in favor of hitting your, cough cough, bucket list, of exotic locales.
For a great many Americans, especially those privileged and of means, world travel is a source of true and great pleasure. It has the added bonus of being the absolutely greatest status-booster among anyone who gets to jet set to the other side of the country or beyond. I hardly have a single social engagement these days that isn’t mostly peppered with talks of plans to travel, the regaling of recent travel, travel wish lists, or memories from travel long ago.
It’s what people talk about because so few people talk about ideas anymore.
Except for travel as an “idea” and a reality. People never shut up about that, a common refrain being that, “travel is a must for the truly and respectably sophisticated person.” Here, world travel is an inherently moral good, with advocates going so far as to say that without it it is impossible for people to understand, appreciate, respect, or learn from other peoples and cultures. That an unmitigated and calcified provincialism is the lot of the merely local wanderer.
In this spirit it’s not easy to admit publicly that I don’t travel very far, and that I definitely don’t fly.
I stopped flying about 27 years ago because of the environmental hazard of widespread, gratuitous flying.
Sure, I appreciate that man gaining flight was a tremendous technological achievement, and one that should be used in the right measure. But I dispute whether because something can be done that it should be done, or at least that it should be done on a mass scale in essentially what amounts to commodified global consumerist pleasure flying.
If we don’t electively rein in the exponential impact of things like gratuitous air travel, and its consumptive follow-ons, well, those things will have an impact on our earth systems, and hence on us, and by us I mean all earth denizens, like kitties and butterflies and our kids’ kids and…you know, good meat and hearty wine! We can’t keep pretending our habits don’t or won’t make an impact.
And let’s be real, it’s not impossible to truly grow as a person vis a vis other cultures unless you visit in person. Centuries of books that enlighten us to the rest of the world prove the worth of the travel of the mind. And we’ve got plenty of books, movies, and TV today, along with the tremendous potential in Internet-based connections with other societies, to keep the curious busy forever and a day.
These things may be less perfect than two weeks in Lisbon, but the perfect is the enemy of the good.
On a side note, earlier this year I spent weeks researching how I could get an old-fashioned sailing vessel, like a four-masted schooner or something, to take me to Bermuda. I wanted to see the colonial sites. But no can do. It was a bust. I could only find ostentatious and tacky cruise ships which I didn’t want to take. I couldn’t even find just some plum skipper advertising a regular going concern to sail from the East Coast to Bermuda.
Now that I would have done. I’m not arguing that all travel is bad. I’m arguing that the type, style, and scale of contemporary world travel is out of control and undermines the very foundations of the world that we so much wish to see.
But beyond merely environmental concerns, I’ve found that there’s a great benefit to visiting one’s own backyard, to get the lay of the land in your own and surrounding states, to learn its history in depth, and rest into place. In essence, to learn your own, our own, histories.*
My bias there is that I do favor jaunts that have a local, historic bent.
American society has become so a-historic, so blind to our history (unaware of it in its truthful particulars), so ready to plow our history over (think tearing down Confederate monuments rather than broadening our understanding through contextualizing and adding more voices to that era’s legacy), that we’d benefit from taking a closer gander at the place we call home.
History provides an awful lot of perspective, and fortunately for us, our beautiful national and state parks, along with a trove of museums, living history and geological sites, house, church, and municipal tours, and things like immersion camps and workshops, allow for a trove of digging in to who we are as Americans and what we need to know about ourselves.
Plus our country is drop dead gorgeous. We didn’t get that whole, “from sea to shining sea” thing from nowhere. America is one hot babe. Or righteous dude if you prefer. Or non-binary, amorphous hot potato if your taste runs to a different bent.
Get out there and see it!
America the Beautiful
Now, at a time when the woefully ill-prepared, hostile, and boorish President Grump is insincerely using dog-whistle xenophobia to advance a faux “America First” agenda it may seem ill-timed to actually say, “see America first.”
I can assure you that I share none of Grump’s aims.
My concern in discouraging flight-based travel abroad (and at home) is, first off, as stated, a deeply felt urge rooted in care for our world, our habitat, our beautiful but fragile home. I’ll never escape being earth’s advocate. I’d like for people to not commit global human suicide, though that may be inescapable if we don’t wise up, grow up, and take the longer view.
But there’s also historic precedent for living local that connects to all peoples across all time.
We live in an historically anomalous time. In the past, there were no means to jet from one side of the globe to the other in a day. Even family ties, as precious and important as they were, were subordinated to the choices to live apart, meaning that if family wasn’t near, that’s just the price you paid and letters had to suffice.
Jetting off to see the new baby/wedding/funeral/yearly reunion/enticing geological/cultural site wasn’t an option. Limited travel, by slow, and minimally-polluting means, was all there was. And that was actually a good thing for the larger context, even if hearts pined for loved ones. And it is the overwhelming historic norm.
Hearts still pine for far-off loved ones (and sites) but now we regard that because scratching this itch is an immediate option, that it also must be good, right, legitimate, and true.
Yes, travel and love ties give us personal pleasure, but we can’t pretend there isn’t a cost to our choices. That cost is getting banked and baked into a failing world eco-system, our only life support system. We — you and me — we’re the one’s doing this.
But my concern envelops another area, too, wherein a mood of American self-reflection has been observably eclipsed in favor of a lingering post-war, 1950s, unconsciously carefree, fossil-fuel soaked ephemeral culture of ever-increasing thrills and petty indulgences that is impacting our society in a million seen and unseen ways, very few of them healthy.
Who Are We?
Harkening back to those simpler days of travel, it’s time for America and Americans to slow down, breathe, go deep, look within, maybe begin to grow up as a people.
We’re slacking on the great American project and it ain’t helping matters. We’re at each others’ throats, we’re behaving like crazy people, we have a racist legacy that is yet to be widely acknowledged much less healthfully resolved, we’re politically confused, we’re unable to process the fruits of our technological advances, we’re overbooked, stressed, and too busy, and we’re in over our heads on media and outsized consumption.
A realignment is well overdue.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to his nephew,
“There is no place where your pursuit of knowledge will be so little obstructed by foreign objects, as in your own country, nor any, wherein the virtues of the heart will be less exposed to be weakened.
Be good, be learned, and be industrious, and you will not want the aid of traveling, to render you precious to your country, dear to your friends, happy within yourself.”
We have compelling reasons that go beyond individual desire to put a check on our unchecked air travel. Each one of us has longings, desires, hopes, dreams, attractions. But no man is an island. We are in this together. There are bigger questions at play.
There are over 100,000 flights per day worldwide. And it’s a huge industry, supports a ton of people — “What about them?” Again, there are bigger questions at play. For starters, What are they going to do for a living on a dead planet?
We have the means to be pro-active about our world, to downshift and realign, and we can do it all while still living amazing lives full of opportunity, aesthetic pleasures, work, play, and adventure. The past tells us this in spades!
We may not get everything we want. That two-week jet trip to Viet Nam or Venice or Ireland may no longer make the cut. It may not be perfect. It never has been.
But the perfect really is the enemy of the good. And sometimes, good is good enough. Sometimes it might be even better than you’d expect. Like if sailing came back (with a little modern twist), or we actually really knew our own story.
— Lindsay Curren, Average American
*Yes, I know, cars are a problem too. One problem at a time, baby.