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?