Recovering Meaningful Travel
Over the past month, Senator Ben Sasse (R- NE), recently dubbed “the most interesting man in Washington,” has created a buzz with his newly published book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis– and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, mainly because it talks about more than his next reelection campaign. Among other things, the book bemoans the demise of a virtuous citizenry, a lackluster work ethic among millennials, and the shortcomings of an education system oriented toward professional niches. Sasse also outlines a plan for raising truly literate, virtuous, and self-reliant children. Few people are engaging in this needed polemic. One of the few notable authors doing so is Anthony Esolen in his recent work, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, which is more directly concerned with higher education, but certainly touches on several of Sasse’s concerns as well. I wholeheartedly recommend you add both to your summer reading list.
One of the Senator’s suggestions to combat the problems he identifies in America’s youth is the development of a habit of meaningful travel. Our usual travel habits don’t align with Sasse’s vision. In reality, most of us do not travel, we vacation. Booking an extended stay on a cruise or at a resort amounts to little more than transporting a Western, first-world standard of living to an exotic location where we are pampered and the cares of the world drift from memory. This is not to totally condemn this brand of travel. It fulfills a certain purpose. When I booked my honeymoon with my wife, my goal was to spend a week vegetating on a beach and sleeping off the wedding-planning hangover in the company of my new bride. Mission accomplished. There is a time for vacationing and escaping the drudgery and stress of everyday life. But this is not primarily what Sasse is pushing for. Vacationing as such is not a catalyst for virtue and character.
Becoming a meaningful traveler, in Sasse’s mind, is the process of encountering different ways of life, unfamiliar social conditions, and diverse cultures so that our horizons can be expanded and our understanding of our own contexts and society can be deepened. It is also so that we can to a certain extent endure struggle, the very antithesis of vacationing. In explaining this he cites the historian Daniel Boorstin who drew a distinction between the nobility of travel and the boredom of controlled group touring. To Boorstin (and Sasse) “the lost art of travel” meant going out “in search of people, of adventure, of experience.”
Sasse recently explained travel’s value in the Wall Street Journal, “When we travel [meaningfully], we subject ourselves to the vertigo that accompanies leaving familiar surroundings, customs, language and food. It’s especially valuable for adolescents. Like hard work, it makes them appreciate not just the comfort of their own lives but the satisfaction of trying new and difficult things.” Could you describe your last snorkeling cruise to the Bahamas like that?
He likens it to learning a new language. It is only once we are forced to bend our minds to a different way of communicating, and endure that struggle that any student of language understand, that we begin to truly understand our own grammar and speech, as well as the idiosyncrasies of language itself. Per Sasse, this is an experiential virtue almost totally absent from our culture.
What Sasse is advocating does not require you to become Chris McCandless (a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp), dumping your car in a ravine and burning your cash and driver’s license before embarking on a barefoot trek across the continent. But it does require some form of self-induced uncomfortableness, valuing “production over consumption.” The side benefit of viewing travel this way is that it doesn’t require immense wealth or leisure. It can be accomplished almost anywhere. (Actual) camping or day-trips to a neighboring town can be meaningful travel if done in pursuit of experience rather than comfort. In the end, the Nebraskan Senator is not asking for much. He merely wants us to experience the world in all of its beauty, diversity, and difficulty and not flee from it, but rather plunge headlong into its depths.
The final component of this meaningful habit cannot be ignored, for it is the adhesive that holds the whole concept together: reflection. Sasse says, “And when you’re done with your trip, don’t just return immediately to everyday life. Pause to summarize the experience and reflect on it.” In this way, travel transitions from being a passive activity wherein the traveler’s every desire and comfort is met, to a reflective, internalized journey that connects to the individual’s grand scheme of life. This doesn’t mean that travel can’t contain elements of entertainment and pleasure, but it does mean that it cannot drift into escapism. Traveling to a third world country typically has a lasting effect on Western travelers because they are confronted with new realities and ways of life. It usually leads to a post-trip almost involuntary time of reflection wherein the traveler tries to make sense of what she has just witnessed and how it should influence or change the rhythms of her life. We cannot fabricate this effect after every trip we take outside of our comfort zone, but some element of this should be a regular recurrence for us. In Sasse’s view, it is only through meaningful travel and subsequent reflection that we come to meaningfully understand non-travel.
Something that Sasse does not directly address in his conception of travel, but that I am sure he would not object to, is that part of the purpose of conducting meaningful travel is the pursuit of truth. Or, in more practical terms, gaining wisdom from experience towards truth. As Roger Scruton has said, “[t]he joy of the intellectual life arises partly from the search for truth, toward which the thinking person turns as a flower to the sun.” This is obviously intricately linked (for our purposes) to the reflection component of meaningful travel, and is not far from what Sasse would label as the very crux of education itself. Meeting new people and encountering new thought is conducive to encountering truth you once had not; not new truth, but further truth. Just as we read great literature not to amass arbitrary facts and detached experiences, but to “learn and love the truth,” we can also travel not to compile envy-inducing Instagram photos, but partially to develop affections for truth and virtue. Experiences had and people met in travel, like good books, are “companions who will tell you what they have seen of the truth, and they tell you it in a way you will not soon forget.”
In this way, the experience and challenge of travel is conducive to the life of the mind. And it is through challenges to the mind that thought finally “becomes beautiful through the work of the imagination,” as Scruton says. To do this we need help; help putting “side by side and in a single clasp things that you would never have known belonged together.” Meaningful travel in the spirit of Boorstin and Sasse is like a discipline of the humanities; it trains us to “set our hearts on the truth,” which necessarily exists outside of our own narcissistic minds and comfort zones, and often is found in unexpected places. Anthony Esolen notes, “Truth sometimes comes to us in a flannel shirt and denim trousers. But only if we set our hearts upon the truth will we suspect that the farmer [like the ones met by McCandless in South Dakota] over there… is speaking it.”