Traveling for the right reason

June 17, 2019

Have a chat with someone who moved cities, or even countries, and inevitably one question makes a wild appearance:

“So, what were you running away from?”

Recently I’ve been learning a bit about the Stoicism philosophy. I’ve been amazed by most of what I’ve learned, but there is one particular topic that Lucius Seneca, a famous Roman Stoic philosopher, touches quite often when expressing his views on Stoicism: traveling. Namely, traveling as an escape to reality.

But unlike most of our modern day’s philosophers (by whom I mean bloggers, of course), who advocate on endless posts with bullet points telling us “Why you should quit your job and travel now!”, Seneca had some pretty tough opinions on why people move between places, and why our concept of escapism is fundamentally flawed. Travel, as popular culture now dictates, is seen as the ultimate escape to life’s most inconvenient problems. If you don’t like your boss, if you just got out of a relationship, or if you’re generally unhappy with who you are, then just set sail somewhere new and the promise of a new exciting land will fix everything for you. Right? Well, maybe not so.

To quote Seneca, who puts the thought elegantly:

“Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? ”Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.”

In a nutshell, those who travel for the sole sake of fixing their broken soul or a broken heart will most likely be left with nothing but disappointment, a lighter wallet and the bitter taste of failing to achieve their self improvement goals. This, of course, if you project all of your expectations and promises of a better life on top of the attitude of moving somewhere new.

What Seneca is advocating is something that should be so blatantly obvious for the one who dreams of land, so full of sense that shouldn’t even be worthy of mention, and yet we keep doing it wrong over and over again:

If you want to travel, do so for the sake of positive curiosity and the possibility of mind broadening, rather than doing it based on underlying negative feelings that you might be experiencing at this stage in your life.

The thought of moving somewhere exotic and unknown because we’re deeply unhappy (whether we acknowledge it or not) is no different than finding a distraction. Like checking Facebook 55 times a day, or playing easy brainless smartphone games during our commutes. Traveling it’s the grand way out that promises so much, but usually we seek it for the wrong reasons: with the hope that it will fix us.

“Suppose that someone has broken a leg or dislocated a joint: he does not take carriage or ship for other regions, but he calls in the physician to set the fractured limb, or to move it back to its proper place in the socket. What then? When the spirit is broken or wrenched in so many places, do you think that change of place can heal it? The complaint is too deep-seated to be cured by a journey.”

I love traveling. I will keep doing it for as long as my mind, heart and body allows it. However, I’ll make sure to go through a very thorough soul examination next time I feel the urge to be on the move. Traveling is a thing of beauty, and if I could drop a citation to Seneca today, I’d leave him with these words written by Cody C. Delistraty:

“It can be lonely, but one must ask oneself, what is lonelier: is it merely being alone in a new country or is it also staying put in a place you know you don’t belong — a place where you could end up wasting away the most poignant years of your life?”

So next time someone asks you what you were running away from, make sure you don’t have to dig deep to find the answer.

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Written by Ricardo Magalhães who works for the Internet. By day, a front-end web developer with a passion for typography and design. By night, he sleeps. Follow me on Mastodon.