Sunday, January 12, 2014

Another Hidden Downside to Travel

Very few of us are immune from the occasional game of "what-if."  How might my life have differed had I turned right instead of left, bought a house in the city instead of the suburbs, chosen pottery over banking, or Cindy over Susie?   But of course you can't ever go back.

Psychologists say that, in most situations involving humans making choices, increasing the number of options will decrease the ultimate satisfaction of the person making the choice.  Perhaps the knowledge of alternatives makes it almost inevitable that we will be too aware of the imperfections of our choices.  In this sense, we perhaps should envy the student who attends the first college he visits, the worker who takes the first job he finds, or the bride and groom in an arranged marriage.  (Or at least the lucky ones.)

No matter how our choices work out, we ultimately play the game of "what-if."  And if we aren't happy with the answer - if it makes us miserable, melancholy, or just plain restless -- we may find ourselves imagining making major changes in our lives.  But more often than not we don't actually change careers, divorce and remarry, sell houses, or even replace large items such as cars on a whim.  Most restlessness is held in check by our attachments and our routines. We shy away from the biggest changes, and try to divert our restlessness with fads, fandom, or fashion.  We can't ever live an alternate version of our own lives.

The next best thing would appear to be travel.  But you can easily return knowing additional ways in which your life is less than perfect.

Travel takes us to alternate universes.  The home of your cousin in New York has unmistakable differences from your life in suburban Chicago, or your uncle's Iowa pig farm, and yet these differences pale in comparison to Tokyo, Beijing, or Kinshasha, let alone Yosemite Valley or Antarctica.  The more you travel, the more universes you will have seen.  But, if you believe the psychologists, you may find it increasingly difficult to be satisfied with any one of them.  You will always be aware that some things are better elsewhere, and that there's even more that you haven't seen.  Your list of destinations grows faster than your ability to visit them.

Imagine a perfect world, completely at peace, in whatever serves as your vision of Utopia.  Now imagine that you could go and live in that near-perfect universe at a small and simple price:  you could never again have your two favorite foods.  To me, this is the nightmarish "World without Pizza and Ice Cream."  Almost anyone would make that tradeoff -- world peace alone is probably worth giving up pizza -- but how many people could be completely content with that choice?  I know that for the rest of my life,  Ben and Jerry would haunt my dreams.

That's what travel does to you.  You go to new places, and you encounter new things -- new people, new attitudes, new foods, new art, and new music.  It's a wonderful experience, but when you go home there are new things to miss, new absences in your less than perfect life.  In South Africa, they sell a wonderful kind of biscuit called rusks, without which my life had previously seemed quite complete, but which I now seek, usually in vain, in imported food stores at home.

Travel expands your horizons, your knowledge of the world, your understanding of humanity and history, and your appreciation of the arts.  But it may not make you happy.  People who live all their lives in a small village are probably, on average, more content than those of us who keep forgetting what time zone we're in.  The things you miss specifically provoke a more intense desire than the more abstract knowledge of things you've never encountered.  I miss rusks far more than I am bothered by the knowledge of how many foreign foods I've never even tried.

For my part, my affinities are scattered about the globe.  When I stay too long at home, I begin to miss very specific things -- the theatre and restaurants in London and New York, the scenery in Africa and California, the museums in Washington and Paris, or the omnipresent history in Rome and Jerusalem.   But if I moved to Yosemite, I'd miss the ocean, and if I moved to Hawaii I'd miss snow.  And when I stay too long on the road, I miss the stability and comfort of home.

It isn't just that our lives are too finite to see and enjoy it all; it's that the more we see and do, the less likely we are to ever be completely satisfied anywhere.  The more you travel, the more easily you can imagine better places than wherever you are.  At least, that's how it works on Earth, but... hmmm... perhaps things might be better on some other world?