We’re all searching for meaning.
Many of us ship out across the globe, hoping that our experiences abroad — volunteering, trekking, partying until sunrise — will illuminate truths previously hidden within the darkness of familiarity. In our expectations, our desire for meaning, however, sometimes all we see is a mirage — an illusion about who we are and what we have become. I know this, because it happened to me.
In January 2012, I packed my bags and flew to Penang, Malaysia, where I was enrolled in a four month University Exchange. I made it a month before dropping out to travel full-time. I was not there for formal education, I decided, but for education of the soul. Each new experience, each conquered obstacle, added to my perceived self-transformation.
By my trip’s end, I considered myself changed. On my final return flight I sat next to an attractive, formally dressed young woman. After all my time away, I believed I was, at last, the charismatic, connect-with-anyone type of person who people love to sit next to on an airplane. I asked the woman several mundane questions until the conversation stalled. My face grew hot as I fidgeted in my seat, not knowing what to say next. My heart was thumping, because maybe I wasn’t who I had built myself up to be; maybe I was still just the authentically shy person who gets nervous when talking to strangers; and maybe there was nothing—not even traveling into outer-space—I could do to change that.
This is of course a small and insignificant example. But it is one of many in a long line of false impressions I had created. By no means do I think there is something wrong with traveling. My experiences were enriching and exciting. The problem was that my travels lent nothing to the type of meaning I was searching for. I partied hard and drank heavily —the same things I had always done except now with a majestic backdrop.
There are many lessons to be learned abroad, both about ourselves and the world around us. But we don’t need to stand under a gushing waterfall, watching the sunset while a local islander strums a ukulele in order to understand ourselves.
In other words, it’s okay for the exotic to just be exotic, and nothing more. When young people like myself project too much on to the unfamiliar, we run the risk of overlooking meaning in the mundane.
When I travelled, it seemed I would do anything for a new experience: 8 hour bus rides over bumpy roads, day long treks in the jungle, sleeping on a mat in a cave. In my home city, I struggle to leave my den, my laptop, my TV screen. In my travels, I visited countless museums in a state of constant wonder. Yet in my own city, I have never once bothered to attend a museum exhibit.
It’s a drastic decision to book a flight and abandon the day-to-day altogether. But perhaps it is more difficult to deviate from the day-to-day in small bits. It’s hard to find the motivation for challenge and exploration amidst the monotony of routine. It’s hard to stay curious when our gadgets seem to have all the answers. It’s hard to explore our surroundings when novelty wears off.
Change, self-discovery, is about experience. No doubt. The challenge of travel, of navigating the unknown, has much to teach us. Whether we can rise to the challenge of treating home as we do abroad—with an eye for wonder, with a desire for difficulty, with a fervor for experience—is where true self-discovery lies.