Thursday, February 03, 2011

On Being Changed

Imagining stepping out of the constant and somewhat predictable rhythm of daily routine into a new script, one that you at least hope and maybe even expect is capable of surprising you, is both the most exciting and the most frightening part of travel. Considering the unpredictablility and the potential of who and what might be 'out there', these mixed feelings come not too unexpectedly. In so many situations around the world, after all, the possibility of dialogue, of meeting the 'other' with vulnerability and a readiness to begin honest self-criticism has been forfeited. Rather, as we are so often reminded, humanity is capable of doing horrific things. The decision to meet threat with counter-threat and resorting to intimidation through violence (which, in its self, breeds new types of insecurities and vulnerabilities) is daily reported in the media. Our collective awareness that we could inadvertently step into a violent conflict, into the crossfire, if we step out of the relative stability of what and who we know and are comfortable with is a legitimate concern. But despite our awareness of the dangers that lurk, however poorly they might be defined, many of us can't ignore that a truly vibrant potential for growth, connection and maturation also exists through who and what is out there.

The possibility that we aren't quite as free as our liberal self-conscience and democratic rhetoric likes to think begins to articulate itself in wholly practical ways when travelling. A country that you may be travelling through (not even stopping in) might require you to have a travel visa for their country, for example. Furthermore, it might be necessary to stay a few nights in a city that you explicitly wanted to avoid so that you can apply and wait for the said visa, because that country's only local consulate is in that particular city. Of course, these examples aren't worth discussing themselves. But they can serve as an obvious starting point for the traveller to begin reflecting on just how deeply we might be affected by factors outside of our control. Grasping this, even without giving these reflections the greater space and effort that they deserve, can substantially aid the traveller in psychologically preparing him or herself for the varied social, political, religious and economic currents that will be exerted upon them as they adventure abroad. Of course, there are certainly ways and degrees of cushioning your experience of the raw and unfiltered realities of the communities that you step into. Still, no matter how someone chooses to travel, the hope to absorb or be absorbed into something fresh, something real, is there.

It almost seems a waste to say that we all enter into these relationships and experiences with prejudices, perspectives and histories, with decisions and delusions that cannot be separated from who you or I am and have become as individuals. Because of this, the stretching of my horizon or yours, more often than not, does not happen in one dramatic swoop. Rather, this receptivity to who and what is out there usually manifests itself in the traveller through small, incremental ways and acts. This is akin to someone first dipping their toe in the water, than going to their ankles, then knees and so on. So in this sense, an increasing attentiveness might begin with something as small as noticing a smile from a passerby, when you might not usually even look to see what expression someone is wearing. Little by little the realization sets in that by listening, looking and speaking more intently, by being more in-tune with what is surrounding you, a door opens and welcomes you into a richer, more complicatingly engaged (and perhaps more bloggable) connection with the world.

It is tempting to think sometimes that you are actually doing a favour when you persevere in not turning away from someone. This is especially the case when it would be much easier to do just that, avert your eyes, close your ears, shut your heart. The trouble with this is that it paints an incomplete picture of what human reality is: in all our variety, we need each other. We learn and grow by doing and having things done to us. This process of challenge and resistance and compassionate response to it is how our identities are formed, reordered and resurrected with a little bit more maturity and an increased capacity to give and receive (dare I say it) selfless love. When someone has been convinced of their self-sufficiency, that their comfortable definitions are all-encompassing, that who they are meant to be has reached as high and as final a state as can be reached in this life, in the world, is when their attention is stunted into being merely a favour to the other and no more.

It is to avoid this static, delusional fantasy that we make ourselves vulnerable to what is other, by looking, by listening, by sharing, by loving. We actively attend to the other so that we may be moulded by it. It is an acknowledgment of our contingency, and that we do, in fact, have unavoidable individual and collective weaknesses. I also can't help but suggest that this is a parallel to what the Christian understands contemplation to be: Giving honest effort at making regular time just to be acutely receptive not only to the world, but most particularly to the ultimate Other, God embodied in the person Jesus of Nazareth. My point in all of this, though, as obscure as it might still be, is that as we engage with and open up to who and what is out there our lives hang just as precariously and are just as much in flux as those we view around us. None of us are fixed points in the ever shifting pattern of the world.

You have been pulled in every direction (physically and emotionally) and your senses have been bombarded. Somehow you can feel exhausted and rejuvenated at the same time. Bonds of friendships have been formed between you and former strangers on the go. Surely there are many more people who weren't converted into friends and maybe there is even someone who you particularly remember with mixed thoughts because of a deeply insensitive comment they directed at you. Creativity has possibly been found or reawakened through journalling, drawing, painting, blogging, poetry or some other medium. You have had times of mountainous happiness and valleys of frustration or even anger. This is travelling. And this is humanity in relation with itself. It demands very much from the adventurer. But, through experiences, particularly with all the varied people, the traveller can take much from the journey, too.

Many travellers, certainly us, travel at least in part so that they can bring home something new and something fresh back to their family, friends and community. Showing that a commitment to conscious, honest and unaccusatory relations with who and what you don't know well is worth the effort it demands is possibly one of the most dire imports needed in many pockets in the West. Of course, this doesn't mean we must endorse or believe what we are shown in our connections with others. It simply means being open to the process of listening and responding to and with each other. Upon returning home, the traveller, I think, is in a unique position to suggest this through photos, stories and by visibly living life with a more fantastically stretched horizon.

p.s. Happy Birthday, Airica and Dave!


Anonymous said...

This reflection on traveling rings of Jonathan's philosophical contemplations..... well done!
And thus the difference between traveling and vacationing!
Kristen - do you still have the black dress from MEC and pants from Banff?

Margaret and Roy said...

Are you two the same two "kids" I knew in Niagara Falls. Your blog just blows me and Roy away. I can't wait to read it and see all the beautiful photos. All I can say is 'WOW'. I want to do what you are the way, baby Roy is doing well, born January 31st.