What's Tony Thinking

Will Travel Change Your Life?


Will travel change your life? In “The Case Against Travel” in the New Yorker, the philosopher, Agnes Callard, is doubtful. Callard is a famous contrarian. I am enough of one to appreciate her argument. She swims against the currents of contemporary wisdom and fashion as she writes:

“The single most important fact about tourism is this: we already know what we will be like when we return. A vacation is not like immigrating to a foreign country, or matriculating at a university, or starting a new job, or falling in love. We embark on those pursuits with the trepidation of one who enters a tunnel not knowing who she will be when she walks out. The traveller departs confident that she will come back with the same basic interests, political beliefs, and living arrangements. Travel is a boomerang. It drops you right where you started.” (emphasis added)

I imagine many — maybe you — would disagree. Certainly Rick Steves, one of Washington State’s more famous residents and a very successful entrepreneur of travel, would take exception. Steves argues, in many and various ways and venues, that travel does change you, that it makes you a better person and citizen of the world.

Back to Callard: “If you think that this doesn’t apply to you — that your own travels are magical and profound, with effects that deepen your values, expand your horizons, render you a true citizen of the globe, and so on — note that this phenomenon can’t be assessed first-personally. Pessoa, Chesterton, Percy, and Emerson were all aware that travellers tell themselves they’ve changed, but you can’t rely on introspection to detect a delusion. So cast your mind, instead, to any friends who are soon to set off on summer adventures. In what condition do you expect to find them when they return? They may speak of their travel as though it were transformative, a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, but will you be able to notice a difference in their behavior, their beliefs, their moral compass? Will there be any difference at all?”

The claim — “this will change your life” — is made for all sorts of things these days, from kitchen appliances to meditation, from diets to dental work, from mattresses to mushrooms. Color me skeptical. More in the Chesterton/ Emerson/ Callard camp. People don’t change much and certainly not easily. If we do change (for the better), it’s an inside job. Not to mention, it’s hard work. Something more than changing the scene or surroundings. Moreover, such inner work is most often prompted by suffering or adversity, experiences that most travel industry professionals takes pains to assure that their clients do not encounter.

God, unlike your travel agent, seems to like working in the nadir of life’s difficult shit, especially in those experiences where we don’t expect God can or will be found.

Callard does acknowledge that, “Travel is fun, so it is not mysterious that we like it. What is mysterious is why we imbue it with a vast significance, an aura of virtue. If a vacation is merely the pursuit of unchanging change, an embrace of nothing, why insist on its meaning?”

“The wisdom a Jewish/ Buddhist,” may say something similar, if with a lighter touch. “Wherever you go, there you are; your luggage is a different story.” Happy travels . . .  or happy staying at home.



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