Travel, eventually, turns everybody into an insufferable prick. Maybe at home you are the most level-headed person in the world without the tiniest shred of pretension. But spend a long enough time away and it will happen. You will turn into one of those people. You know the type I’m talking about. The people who “find themselves.”
Is there anything more vomit inducing than hearing that somebody “found themselves”? The phrase is one often thrown around by travellers who have seemingly been changed for the better by their time in foreign countries. It suggests in the mind a journey of deep spirituality and importance. But sadly the truth is that travel is mostly meaningless and material.
What does it even mean to find oneself? The thought fills me with amusement. All I picture is a man fighting his way through the jungle. He finds a statue covered in vines. Pulling back the leaves he is confronted with a shocking sight. His own face. Oh my god! He’s found Himself.
The Finding Yourself Narrative
Now the cynic in me would love to believe that the idea of finding yourself through travel is a new idea, but really it isn’t. The concept has been around for thousands of years, handed down through religious fables, folk tales and myths. Many of our favourite stories are about characters venturing off into the world, having adventures, and learning about their limitations.
Many of the greatest characters in literature found themselves through long, gruelling journeys. Whether it’s Jason leaving home to kill the Medusa in Ancient Greece or Ahab travelling the sea in search of his whale, the basics of the story have been there long before Julia Roberts came along.
The narrative is appealing. In no small part because it taps into our desire for something bigger. The majority of us lead very routine lives. We want to believe there’s something more for us out there.
For many of us, that adventure will never exist. Yet, travel agents everywhere don’t want you to know it. The idea of a life-changing trip is sold to us so hard that we believe it must be true and when we eventually go on the trip, we’ll make sure it happens. Even if it means lying to ourselves.
People often believe they have grown through travel, but the only thing that has enlarged is their own self-importance. They think they know more about the universe because they’ve spent two months in a foreign country. Yet, they would’ve learnt just as much as if they’d stayed at home.
How many people come back home and are so transformed that their old selves cease to be? There are some that manage it. Some that experience new things abroad that change their viewpoints of the world and they go home determined to change, but most people just believe they’ve changed until they slowly revert back to normal.
I’m reminded of each year when many people make resolutions, promising themselves that the following year will be different. But very soon they fall back into their old routines and lose their willpower. Travel has the same effect. For the short term we believe we have changed, then we go back home and go back to our lives and eventually everything is much as it was. We start out with good intentions. We’ll go to yoga every day, buy only organic food, maybe even turn vegetarian. But soon our yoga mat is just another thing gathering dust in our cupboard alongside all the other things we said we’d do, but never did.
Still, it’s a horrible reality. That travel is meaningless. That all we’re doing is paying money to do something pleasurable. But the idea of spiritual enlightenment sells holidays. We all want to think we’re going travelling for more sophisticated reasons. We have to give this trip meaning, no matter where it comes from otherwise we’ll look like material whores.
We force our travels to become spiritual experiences, where we have discovered more about the world and the meaning of life. However, there’s nothing spiritual to be taken from learning a few yoga poses or spending three days taking selfies at a meditation retreat.
Spiritual Journeys from History
Let’s think of some actual spiritual journeys. Like Moses escaping from Egypt to spent 40 days and 40 nights wandering in the desert, before talking to God and realising he must go back home to save his people. Now let’s imagine instead that Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights travelling around Thailand, staying in guesthouses and drinking copious amounts of Chang. Would he have come to the exact same conclusions, or would he have come to the short-sighted conclusion that his eyes had been opened due to experiencing a little difference in the world?
Ok, maybe Moses is a bad example. He was Jewish for a start and it’s not exactly hip to spend 6 months in Israel avoiding pork and speaking in Yiddish. The only cool thing about Judaism is the beards!
Let’s take the travellers one and only favourite instead: Buddhism. Everybody loves a little Buddhism, don’t they? The meditation, the temples, the fact you can tell all your friends you’re a Buddhist.
It’s no surprise that Buddhism is so revered by travelers. Buddha himself practically invented finding oneself.
He spent his early life as a spoilt prince before departing from home to see the reality of the world. The reality he found was a bleak one of poverty and suffering. Sounds much like many of our travels, doesn’t it? Spoilt rich people going to other countries, being bombarded by injustice.
He was so changed by the experience that he decided to give up all his worldly possessions and live his life apart from the material world.
Wait…what? Hold on a second. He. He did what? You mean he just gave it all up for like….a week…before buckling in? Right? Was he mental or something. What does a person do without…stuff?
His journey continued until he became enlightened after spending 49 days in deep meditative thought (or non-thought, I suppose!)
Hold on. Hold on. You mean, he reached the peak of his travels by sitting and experiencing nothing? He didn’t even eat a little pad thai or ride an elephant? What the fuck? Dude was clearly a nutter.
Instead, I prefer to imagine that when he left his palace, he saw the imbalance between his own life and poverty of others. Then he decided to change and live a life free from material possessions. Only to get distracted by cheap massages and food.
Knowing he’d wasted his opportunity to be enlightened he stumbled across the greatest idea ever. He would just go back home and tell everybody that he’d found himself. Soon enough everybody will have forgotten his trip and he could go back to living the exact same life as before. Smart Buddha.
No great lessons in life are learnt in five minutes. Learning that spirtuality exists doesn’t mean you’re a spiritual person. All the best lessons are slowly learnt and only learnt through true self-reflection and dare I say it…solitude. A person doesn’t change spirtually without deep amounts of thought. Coming to the quick realisation that you’re the five millionth tourist to enjoy pad thai is hardly cause for existential awakening.
In both of these spiritual journeys the characters of Moses and Buddha only changed after deep reflection. This reflection allowed them to change their lives and become better people. It wasn’t really experiences that helped them on their path, but rather lack of them. Travel didn’t enlighten them, they enlightened themselves.
So my advice is, if you want to truly find yourself. Don’t go travelling. Instead lock yourself in a room for 40 days with nothing but yourself. Truly, for the first time in your life, think about the world and your place within it. Consider the meaning of life, who you are and what role you play. Maybe you’ll come to a startling conclusion, maybe you’ll truly find yourself. Or maybe you’ll just realise that the person you are has been there all along. It’s you after all.
I’m not saying that travel isn’t good for us. It can help us to change for the better, but I don’t believe travel is so much the cause of this as we are. You can change just as well at home by going through life and growing up. Going travelling doesn’t make you a higher being – it might just speed up the growth.
Travel can challenge us. I’ve learnt a lot of things by travelling. But have I found myself? No. Because I’ve always known who I am. A sarcastic, cynical dick. As this post proves.
So really all you need to do to find yourself is simple. Just go and look in the mirror.
Photo of man meditating by Photo of man partying by . Both published under a CC license.