Spotlight, The Heroic Life, Travel

Is Travel Training for Heroism?

Whenever possible I hunt down people with smart things to say and engage in weeks-long email dialogues on topics of interest. With their permission I’ll publish them here.

This is an ongoing disagreement between Colleen Palmer of Safe from Shame and myself. Colleen doesn’t believe travel is a necessary training tool for the Heroic Life. I wouldn’t say it’s the only way (nor would most of my readers), but I do believe it’s the best way. Here are our thoughts.

Drew: Let’s start with one of our bigger disagreements. I believe travel is the best training for heroism.

Colleen: By promoting travel as the best training for heroism, you encourage would-be followers of the Heroic Life to believe that the great adventure is always around the next corner, in the next village, in the next country—while neglecting any responsibility at home. It fosters heroism as only being possible when you’re a stranger in a strange land. Awareness is the best quality a hero can have, and the best training to gain awareness is to cultivate it in the best possible environment for the student. If that’s at home; that’s at home. If it’s on the road, then it’s on the road.

Drew: I believe that’s inaccurate. I want to be fair: travel is definitely not the only way to train to live heroically, and anyway most heroes don’t train for it at all. They just step up one day. There are many great people who have done heroic things and never expected to until the moment came to make a choice.

However, for those who want to be as ready as possible to take heroic action, I think it’s important to have an honest conversation about what the best training methods are. Just because you can be a hero anywhere, doesn’t mean everywhere gives you an equal chance or the same preparation. Traveling as “a stranger in a strange land” is a character-changing experience that isn’t easily duplicated in a gym, classroom or weekly session. Much like an immersion course for learning a new language, travel produces a dramatic level of fluency in the skills needed for heroic action. Perhaps most important of all, it forces the would-be hero out of routine and habit.

Colleen: I think you’re defining not traveling as being the same thing as trying to learn “in a gym, classroom or weekly session.” That’s not at all what I’m speaking of. It’s true: safe, scripted learning can be inferior to hands-on experience for most people. However, experiences are always there, if you cultivate the awareness to find them. I don’t go to a class to teach me compassion: I walk down [the street] and talk to the homeless and disposessed. I don’t train my body by going to a gym; I train by using my own power to walk through my own city, learning and observing as I go. I don’t have a (formal) trainer to teach me how to overcome paralysis and act when there is need; I look up to mentors, learn what my own triggers are, and work at taking action every day, even in the most mundane circumstances. Every person I meet, everything I observe around me serves as learning and training for following the heroic life.

Perhaps, however, it would be useful to define “travel.” When I walk the streets of my city, am I traveling? When I go, say, a few hours outside of the city up north, am I traveling? Must it be somewhere I have never been before? Must it be somewhere that there is a sufficient distinction from the culture that I expect? Must I go a certain distance from home? Must I be alienated from a certain amount of the network that supports me when I am at home?

I’ll certainly agree with you that you have to walk roads you’ve never walked before, but I can do that [in my hometown].

Drew: First off, I think you should be proud if you’re working that hard to cultivate awareness on a daily basis. But it’s easy not to, and if we’re looking for an effective training regimen that’s where travel comes in.

I don’t think travel needs to be strictly defined, but only certain kinds of travel teach the skills in question. In discussing the impact of travel, I always point out that high-ticket, luxurious, walled-resort style travel will not do the trick.

The experiential change travel can provoke in the traveler comes from the crisis of it. It comes when you realize you’re in over your head, that there is no one to call, no one to bail you out: that you have only yourself and strangers to rely on.

This kind of travel isn’t comfortable or desirable for everyone. Many try to avoid it. They get terrified and leave if such an experience intrudes on their planned trip. But in every great travelogue you can correlate the moments of intense personal transformation with moments like these. Watch Art of Travel or The Motorcycle Diaries (or any other true travel story) and you’ll see the same.

I would be surprised and impressed if you can get this experience by talking to a homeless person 5 blocks from your home. I would be amazed if you can get it by visiting with someone from India in your home city. Maybe a non-traveler could have such an experience if, for example, they spent a night living under bridges and in shelters with homeless people. But there’s something disingenuous about that. When you know you can go home at the end of the experience, that alone changes it.

Colleen: There’s a lot here that I’d like to respond to, but it’s all rather tangential to the central concept of travel. The primary benefit of travel comes from the crisis of having to rely on yourself or use your intuition to find strangers that will help you, right?

Let’s say I’m hopping on a bus here in the city to somewhere in the suburbs. I’m not quite sure I have the right bus, and I’m a little nervous. I have a few options: I can ask the driver if I have the right bus. I can ask a passenger or someone waiting with me. I can check the schedule on my smartphone. I can read the little hanging things that show the route.

Or perhaps I’m trying to navigate the Underground. I’m going from the Tower of London to Islington. I’m not quite sure how to get back. I can ask a passenger or someone waiting with me. I can check the schedule on my smartphone. I can look for documentation to see if it would help me.

In what way has traveling from home changed how much I need to rely on myself or the people around me?

Drew: Personally, I wouldn’t say “do I have the right bus?” really qualifies as a crisis moment, but I realize that threshold varies for different people. In regards to the local-versus-London examples, the difference lies (at least) in your safety net and panoply of options. Locally you can call a friend if you get on the wrong bus, or if you end up somewhere unintended you know generally what it’s like and how to get back from there. Abroad those factors are not a given: you may be flying blind. Local attitudes and procedures may be so different that just figuring out who to ask or what they mean can be a challenge in itself.

You’re making an excellent case for how the same skills can come into play without traveling. I agree with you; you absolutely can challenge yourself at home. My personal quest is to identify and implement the best strategy to learn these skills. Someone can master the principles of chemical engineering without going to college, but college is a more effective (and probable) way to do it. Someone can become calm and mindful without meditating, but most people need to do meditation first.

I want the most effective and probable method of training toward living adventurously and acting heroically. If you can think of a method that outperforms travel, I want to learn it.

Colleen: I agree that travel is very likely the most effective and probable method of learning to live heroically—for you. And I think that’s where we really disagree, because I have a lifetime behind me of not having a safety net; this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever had one to leave.

Beyond that point, though, you have stated before that one step of living the heroic life is “if you don’t know your purpose, travel.” Which fails to address what to do once you know what your purpose is. If the goal of travel is to find your purpose, then isn’t that its real job, not as an open-ended prescription for living the heroic life? Perhaps once it has achieved that, it still has usefulness as a tool, certainly, but does it still have pride-of-place in your quest to follow the heroic life? Or does it become just one more tool?

I brought up England purposefully, because it is quite far away from where I am, and yet still not apparently far enough away to engage the sense of crisis, dependency, and trust that you have stated are best acquired through travel.

In the end, I reject travel as the “best” method of living the heroic life because of many reasons: it is not required for many in today’s world to actually travel to meet and benefit from interactions with people who are not “just like them”; it presupposes that you have a safety net to leave; it lacks clearly defined unique benefits; and it lacks a good definition. The emphasis on travel seems to be masking the qualities that you are striving for when you travel: empathy, connection, crisis, self-reliance. Travel is a good training method to achieve these goals, yes. It may even be the best, nearly the best, or equivalent to other methods. But by emphasizing the method and not the goals, you’re taking what works best for you and applying an exclusive veneer to what comes next.

For those who will not travel, but are called to the heroic path… need they not apply? Is it the linchpin that holds it all together? For those who do not know their purpose, will it only be found in a country whose language they don’t speak? For those who live without the safety net of a loving family, a secure home, and a good job, must they acquire these things, just so they can leave them?

At this point I find myself largely agreeing with Colleen. I’m never a fan of absolutes, and travel won’t have the same effect for everybody. But most people do have a safety net to leave. Most will be more mindful of suffering in their own home town, after they’ve been struck in the face with it somewhere else. So travel remains an excellent way to jump-start living for your ideals and finding your purpose.

Travel is not a perfect tool, nor the tool for everybody. But this kind of conversation leaves me asking: can you name a better one?

Advertisements
Standard

25 thoughts on “Is Travel Training for Heroism?

  1. Lynn says:

    When I was reading this I just kept thinking of all the rituals of “becoming a man” etc. (Can apply to women, but I’m thinking historically) Many involved the young man going out and relying on his skills and wits to survive for awhile, either by going out and surviving in the wilderness or serving in their military, whatever. It all involved leaving your safety net and finding and relying on your inner strength.

    So maybe the distance you travel isn’t really the point, but how out of your element you are. You can’t learn much about yourself if you never leave your mom’s house.

    • The parallel to ritual is fascinating. Especially when one considers the female coming of age ceremony in many cultures is the opposite: removing the young woman away to some secluded, sequestered place and then re-introducing her. (The book Emerging from the Chrysalis by Bruce Lincoln is great on this.)

      I agree with your conclusion, by the way. It’s definitely about getting out of your element. I think travel is a more reliable way of doing this than just trying really hard to get out of your element in familiar surrounds… that sounds too much like a New Year’s resolution to me. Easily forgotten.

  2. As you know, I’ve been homeless several times in my life, and I’ve had to travel on my own power and stay in questionable, dodgy places with untrustworthy people. Those experiences made me stronger, but did it put me in the class of living the heroic life?

    “Maybe a non-traveler could have such an experience if, for example, they spent a night living under bridges and in shelters with homeless people. But there’s something disingenuous about that. When you know you can go home at the end of the experience, that alone changes it.”

    That was how I thought after I got myself out of the poor situation(s) I was in (you may remember but may not have known just how bad I had it both before and after you moved away from Milwaukee). When I moved back up north, the university students here like to have a “night out” where they pretend to be homeless for a weekend in support of the homeless. But what they really do is just make it a “camping out” time for them. At any time they could go home and get an extra blanket, more supplies, hot cocoa or coffee, and talk on their cell phones.

    The point of totally roughing it is to go completely without luxury and give up the comforts of home and be on your own.

    So… is it brave to do so by your own choosing or find yourself in that difficult situation due to circumstances beyond your control and overcome it? Who is more heroic in the end?

    These are the questions I think about while I was reading the exchange of words between you and Colleen. So…

    To answer your question at the end:

    “Can you name a better one (tool to train for the Heroic Life) ?”

    Define and live by a set of virtues. Virtue in itself isn’t just a noun, it is a quality to aspire to and achieve. How can virtue be a tool for training? First of all, one must truly know what a virtue is — I would assume that the Heroic Life should have a simple list of key virtues.

    I had a vision — the Iris flower — the three petals represent three virtues:

    Faith

    Wisdom

    Valor

    Just these key three can branch off into directions that will inspire tools and training techniques that will lead you to best develop these virtues of the Hero.

    • Establishing (and living by) your virtues is definitely key to the Heroic Life, but that doesn’t mean it’s a training tool. To me, the virtues are almost more like the endpoint that you need to train towards. But I’m open to being convinced.

      • It was quite late when I wrote that response and I hadn’t time to come back to it until just now — I thought more about it and realized I did answer very well, so my response was more like thinking out loud and then losing my train of thought — proof I should just go to bed earlier. LOL But, yes, I meant there should be more training tools to establish such virtues.

        I also wanted to clarify that Faith isn’t necessarily religious faith, but more like Faithfulness, or having Faith in one’s self. From those three virtues could branch so many other qualities the hero needs to establish.

        For many years I’ve been fascinated with and want to reawaken a practice of virtue… I think it could augment your line of thought, but I fear it would take too long to express here, so I’ll have to share that for another time. Perhaps at my blog. I do not know your life is going to be like soon. I fear writing any long replies or pressuring you to read anything of mine! Just get out there and kick ass.

        My ideas will still be here. I can wait.

  3. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

    The quote belongs to Mark Twain. But it is also how my mother raised me. She always said that traveling is one of the best ways to spend your money and live your time, and I have always loved traveling. Nothing transforms you like visiting other places, seeing other people and opening yourself to them.

    Besides, it is possible to travel and still be mindful of your responsibilities at home. There are time for both things.

  4. MercyFire says:

    Perhaps it is losing one’s sense of safety which challenges us most effectively. Giving up, or being forced to give up, ready shelter, food and assistance shocks most of us. Everyone has something to lose, poor or rich, and therefore a means with which their safety can be threatened. Our response to each threat is the story of the heroic journey.

  5. Rua Lupa says:

    “Travel is not a perfect tool, nor the tool for everybody. But this kind of conversation leaves me asking: can you name a better one?”

    A better tool for what exactly? Won’t know what tool would work best if you don’t know what it is supposed to do i.e. get a nail into wood or to pull the nailed wood apart from the frame which would make the hammer the best tool for both jobs.

    • In all fairness, Rua, I think the purpose of the tool is well defined in the article:

      “…a necessary training tool for the Heroic Life…” [defined here]

      “Travel is the best training for heroism.” [also defined there]

      “for those who want to be as ready as possible to take heroic action, I think it’s important to have an honest conversation about what the best training methods are. …Much like an immersion course for learning a new language, travel produces a dramatic level of fluency in the skills needed for heroic action. Perhaps most important of all, it forces the would-be hero out of routine and habit.”

      “The experiential change travel can provoke… comes when you realize you’re in over your head, that there is no one to call, no one to bail you out…”

      “I want the most effective and probable method of training toward living adventurously and acting heroically. If you can think of a method that outperforms travel, I want to learn it.”

      So what’s the verdict, my friend? Does travel fit the bill?

      • Rua Lupa says:

        Most of these straight up say travel is it without leaving the possible tool open for interpretation. Hence me asking about what the tool is supposed to do, which the crux of it is to help you become a hero when the need arises.

        From what I’ve seen the purpose of the is to
        a) get out of your comfort zone,
        b) be independent/self-reliant,
        c) help others, with no personal stake
        d) reflect on your personality, actions, and thoughts
        e) learn and gain valuable skills
        f) hone, refine and master these skills and the other skills you already possess
        g) to enable you to endure discomfort, uncertainty, and pain (which there are a variety of different kinds of discomfort and pain, physical, emotional/psychological)

        Doing what you are good at and finding your purpose was mentioned, but they don’t necessarily help you become a hero, they help you find who you are. Which could help but not directly.

        With these in mind travel (the journey itself) might be the best tool for some on this path, but not the best for others. Other ways of attaining these could be volunteering your labor in something you haven’t done before for an extended period of time. Like that of wwoofers (http://www.wwoof.org/), or volunteer eco vacations, or perhaps something closer. Like volunteering with the YMCA, helping a local farmer, getting in touch with local conservationists or parks to help with rehabilitation, or in the health sector in caring for the elderly or sick. My personal favorite is the Outward Bound solo trips they provide, to gain the helping other with no personal stake bit, there are team trip options that can facilitate that. But these trips are structured which make them different from the travel descriptions I’ve seen before. Yet they can help provide the same skill set. I personally believe a extensive solo experience would definitely be a key part in it, what ever form that would take.

        So, travel can be the best for some, while other tools can be the best for others.

        • Rua Lupa says:

          “Doing what you are good at and finding your purpose was mentioned, but they don’t necessarily help you become a hero, they help you find who you are. Which could help but not directly.”

          I also think that these kind of happen along the way anyway.

            • Rua Lupa says:

              Nah, its more like your walking to get healthy and you end up being able to jump easier and higher as a side bonus.

              • Right, and that is a very ineffective way of increasing your jumping power or jump height. If someone says “I want to compete in the high jump event” and wants to know how to train for it, saying “walk everyday” is a bad answer. Not because walking every day is wrong – it’s one of my favorite activities and it’s extremely health and enjoyable. But for someone fixed on the high-jump goal it’s a bad recommendation (on its own).

                This is what all the examples and suggestions I’ve been given come down to. Just because something is awesome doesn’t mean it will build X skill.

                • Rua Lupa says:

                  I think you’ve missed the point. The example was expressed to mean something different from what was understood.

                  Hero training (lets just say that involves travel for this example) to be ready to be a Hero, you end up doing what you are good at and finding your purpose as a side bonus.

                  Walking to get healthy and you end up being able to jump easily and higher than before as a side bonus.

                  The point was not to be able to jump higher or better, the point was to get healthy.

                  For a hero, the point was not to find what you are good at or finding your purpose, the point was to be able to be a hero when needed.

                  At least that was the explanation I was trying to express.

                  • Rua Lupa says:

                    “Just because something is awesome doesn’t mean it will build X skill”

                    So what I was trying to say was, just because finding what you are good at and your purpose is awesome, doesn’t mean it will build a Hero skill.

        • I find it interesting that some of your examples that are meant as alternatives to travel – such as WWOOFing or ecovacations – themselves involve travel.

          I find your other examples astute and likely to be of some use, but I question whether they really are as immersive, direct and dramatic in forcing one to develop these skills as non-resort traveling is.

          • Rua Lupa says:

            I was fully aware that those examples could involve “traveling” but don’t have to. If they do, the big difference is that its not about the journey to the destination, but the destination itself. Which need not be far to do, it could very well be in the next province/state, neighborhood or even in your neighborhood. And some people would be vacationing anyway and decide to alter it to be more meaningful while they are there, plus it can be more family friendly this way. All previous readings on travel here had always been about the journey, which why I mentioned these. Also, these examples are often far from resort-esqe experiences as suggested, your tenting for the most part (have known others who’ve done it – particularly an Austrian couple).

            It pleases me that you find the other examples astute. If you question the immersive, direct and dramatic experience, I’d suggest doing it yourself, but I hear your on some sort of crazy ass long adventure so it may not be in the cards – still might be able to do it along the way for brief periods. Another option would be to interview those who have volunteered in these sorts of jobs. Having done some of these things, I personally don’t question the possibility for immersive, direct and dramatic experience. Especially when working with large domestic animals, or aggressive/demanding people in service work. I also know a lot of people who swear by gaining much from simply gardening, especially when it involves community.

            • I find it frustrating that people who don’t travel confidently tell me the non-travel options are just as good, and when I disagree, they suggest I haven’t tried non-travel options. I have.

              The non-travel suggestions you made are:

              Like volunteering with the YMCA, helping a local farmer, getting in touch with local conservationists or parks to help with rehabilitation, or in the health sector in caring for the elderly or sick.

              I have volunteered for local orgs; I have helped farmers; I have worked (professionally and as a volunteer, on campaigns and “on the ground” outdoors) for conservation efforts; I have not volunteered in the health sector, but I have worked with the sick in my Temple community.

              I have enjoyed and benefited from these activities in many ways. Still, I can’t say that they forced me to minor crises or taught me how to handle crisis all on my own. In all these contexts, I had both (a) people around me to give me advice, answers or directions and (b) a way out. If I got fed up I could go home, I could quit. I had friends and colleagues around me as I did these things. People who understood me and who I could count on.

              In other words, each of the activities you suggested failed to provide me with the immersive you-must-make-your-own-way experiences that travel has given me.

              • Rua Lupa says:

                “I can’t say that they forced me to minor crises or taught me how to handle crisis all on my own”

                This is why I figured a solo aspect would be key in such activities. Which can be done without going far.

                • A solo aspect would certainly increase the amount of self-reliance needed, but since you can still call someone or give up and go home, I suggest it would not force as much self-reliance as being a stranger in a strange place.

                  • Rua Lupa says:

                    Having your head covered and being dropped in the middle of the nowhere without technology – you’ll stay put and have to deal with it. That’s how some medicine folks arrange fasts (that being done in wilderness settings though). But I think the Outward Bound solo trips would be a safer way to go about it (injuries still happen as the risks are not removed, because they are the point)

Please share your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s