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?


Safe from Shame

Have you been told you’re not worthy? Do you ever feel ashamed about who you are?

Today I interview Colleen Palmer, proprietress of Safe from Shame. Colleen has walked a challenging personal journey untangling the shame, self-doubt, and guilt in her life. As she began to free herself, she saw that she’s not the only one who needs to know they’re worthy of love and respect. And she dedicated herself to helping others see that they, too, are good enough.

Drew: What exactly is Safe from Shame?

Colleen: I’ve described Safe From Shame as a safe space and a welcoming community where anyone can participate without worrying about feeling ashamed or embarrassed. My hope is that it will serve as a comfort for those who need to hear that they can actually be proud of who they are, a resource for those ready to live a life without shame, and a supportive community where no one feels alone. It starts with a blog, but that’s really the least part of it.

It’s also a place where it’s safe to be anonymous. It’s hard to put yourself out there and admit to being ashamed. Sometimes the only way to feel safe is to feel anonymous, so I’m ignoring all the marketing advice out there, and letting my community decide how comfortable they are in sharing. In the end, I hope that’s what this becomes: a place to share your own story, and have it be received as a valid, and valuable, contribution.

You’ve dealt with issues of shame in your own life—can you talk about those? How did you face it and how did it lead to this site?

I don’t think I could pinpoint all the ways in which I’ve dealt with shame. Sometimes it’s little things, like being embarrassed to approach someone I don’t know, but ashamed that I don’t have the strength to do it. Sometimes it’s big things, like being bipolar, or surviving an abusive step-parent and an abusive marriage. The first thing I learned was that I didn’t actually have to be ashamed—that the feeling of shame was a choice. I’m a pretty analytical person, so after that I went through the times in my life that I’ve felt ashamed, and really examined why. Did it make sense? Had I really done anything to be ashamed of? Did feeling the shame actually change my behavior in any way?

I’ll be honest: I needed help. I was working with a therapist and I realized how important my partner was to the whole process. No matter how hard it got, I had someone that I knew loved who I was. If I respected her opinion, and she loved me, well, then I could probably find a way to love me too. She has to say it a lot—you don’t just magically wake up not feeling ashamed about a particular trait anymore. I realized that everyone needed someone to say “you’re fine as you.” And to say it as many times as necessary. So I decided to say it. Over and over again, as many times as someone needs to hear it.

At what point did you decide to start helping others deal with their shame?

Once I personally realized that shame was something I could deny, I was jubilant. I wanted to start loving all of me. I went through my past beliefs and looked for where they had come from and why I had them. I was so proud! Here I was, finally finally learning how to be a functional human being that actually felt like she deserved to draw breath.

And while I was going back to those old experiences, it hit me that I couldn’t have been the only one that felt that way. I certainly am not the only person to survive abuse, and I’m not the only introvert that feels like society has no place for me. As I re-experienced the pain of feeling so deeply mired in shame, I realized that there was someone out there who was still feeling that way. I didn’t know who she was, but I knew how she felt. And I knew that I had to do something to reach out to her and let her know that she didn’t need to feel that way. I wanted to help her learn what I had learned, without taking 30 years to do it.

Has your partner had similar experiences? Was she an influence on starting Safe from Shame, or is it a solo project?

My partner and I actually are fairly disparate in this regard. She is not quite as thin-skinned as I am, and her experiences as a child and young adult were significantly different. I’ve asked her to discuss some of the things she’s dealt with on the blog, so you may see some writing from her, but this is primarily a solo project. She is definitely in support of it though—even when it keeps me up all night writing!

Is shame ever a good thing? Isn’t it a part of our moral conscience?

I actually do believe there’s a place in society for shame; I just believe we’ve all gotten carried away with it. Shame stems from ritual shunning, and in tribal societies, it was a literal death sentence. It was also necessary for the tribe as a whole and acted as a means of disciplining behavior that put the community at risk. The same remains true today; shaming is a powerful tool for keeping communities safe and functional. If you are pursuing an action that is harmful to your community, then you ought to feel ashamed about that. Too often, however, we use shame to try to correct behaviors that have no bearing on anyone but the person doing them.

While I don’t personally like alcoholism, for example, if you want to drink in excess every night because that’s what gets you through life, then it’s not my (or society’s) place to shame you. The minute you get into a car and put other lives at risk, it becomes an action you should be ashamed of—you’re putting your pleasure above someone else’s safety. That’s a harmful act. But if you never endanger anyone else, and you drink yourself to an early death? I wish you wouldn’t, and I wish you felt you had other options, but I’m not going to say you should be ashamed.

Is Safe from Shame aimed at a certain group or demographic?

Not intentionally. I don’t think there’s any segment of our society that is free from being pressured to feel ashamed. In practice, I suspect it will appeal most to women who have had similar experiences to mine—at least in the beginning—because that’s what I tend to write about. I have hopes that my community will step up and broaden that scope. I can’t write in anything other than the abstract about the shame that men in our society face, for example.

There are also people that don’t need to hear the message that you can live without shame, either because they have great self-esteem and don’t burden themselves with shame, or because they’ve already found their own way out. I would still encourage those people to read the site. One of the things writing Safe From Shame has done for me personally is to make me aware of the ways in which I was unconsciously shaming other people. Safe From Shame doesn’t just mean safety from the shame that you feel, but also learning how to keep from adding to the shame.

Are some people (or types of people) more resistant to shame than others? What makes the difference?

I think some are. A lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the temperament of the person. This is in no way scientific, but I would guess that introverts tend to be more susceptible to shame, because we keep our feelings so tightly inside that we sometimes think other people couldn’t possibly be feeling what we’re feeling. Extroverts tend to “talk out” their problems. When you find you’re not the only one struggling, you start to feel less isolated.

It also has to do with what your society considers normal. Right now, there’s an entire set of “rules” you get taught growing up, from the gender you’re supposed to be, to how you’re supposed to relate to other people, to what makes a real family. If those rules change, you might suddenly find that the shame changes or stops. So those in various counter-cultures tend to be more susceptible to shame as well. When I was a child, for example, red hair was not considered exotic and beautiful; it was just weird. I was teased a lot for something totally beyond my control. Some time between junior high and now, red hair became prized, perhaps even because of its rarity. I now find more people mention to me the many wonderful personality traits redheads have. Sometimes, it feels hard to live up to!

Shame is a very personal issue. How do you decide how much of your own private life to put into your writing? Do you talk about personal matters a lot?

I find that I use myself as an example in almost everything I write. First, because I want my readers to know that they’re not alone. Secondly, I want people to know that I’m not just talking in the abstract. I’m not someone who’s never felt shame who’s suddenly decided to tackle a societal ill. I’ve felt the sinking despair that comes with believing that you have no worth.

It’s actually very, very hard for me to talk about all the ways I’ve felt shame. I wind up feeling ashamed that I felt shame, which is entirely counter-productive. I imagine a reader sitting there thinking you were ashamed about that? Chick, you’ve lost it. And then I think about the person who’s where I was, and I write it anyway.

So, for those who struggle with shame right now, what’s the best way to get started?

The process of internalizing the fact that you don’t need to be ashamed. That doesn’t sound like much at all, but it’s vital. For so many years I felt ashamed because I believed I should. I bought into it. Just knowing that the people who are telling you to be ashamed could possibly be wrong is an incredibly empowering idea. Once you really, truly believe that, you can being the work of putting the pieces back together and learning how to love being yourself again. And once you do that, you can start changing what you want to change. Not because someone tells you that you should be ashamed, but out of a genuine desire to help this person that you are be even better. But it all starts with the radical belief that you don’t have to be ashamed.

Find more stories, community + conversation at Safe from Shame. A question for Rogue Priest readers: have you struggled with the same issues Colleen talks about? Has criticism, shaming and shunning made you doubt yourself, or are you the type that isn’t so strongly affected? How do you deal with it?

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