One of those many phrases that pass beyond language to take on a meaning of their own is, “Travel broadens the mind”. I’ve never been sure what that means. If you’ve been traveling this week, as many of us have, perhaps you can figure it out.
Lao Tzu said this about travel in the Tao Te Ching:
47. DISCOVERING THE DISTANT
The Tao may be known and observed
without the need of travel;
the way of the heavens might be well seen
without looking through a window.
The further one travels,
the less one knows.
So, without looking, the sage sees all,
and by working without self-advancing thought,
he discovers the wholeness of the Tao.
(Stan Rosenthal translation)
Doesn’t exactly sound like he saw a “broadening” occurring. But there is a healthy effect of traveling that I think lies between the old saw and the old block of uncut wood that is Lao Tzu.
If you go only from airport to airport, hotel to hotel, beach to beach, or landmark to landmark, I think that Lao Tzu is entirely right about travel. Where I’ve had a great experience as a stranger to a land it’s been when I had a chance to work with people, or at least to talk with them. The stories people tell are what make all the difference, stories about their town or their family or even just their taste in local beers.
What these stories do is not so much educate me or change me in any way, but to temper my enthusiasm for my own narrow little way of life. Perhaps that is what “broadening” really means after all – a kind of humbling. If that is the case, travel is far more useful than Lao Tzu ever understood.
This week most of us traveled not so far in distance but broadly in time. Families have a special sort of broadening, one that reminds us how the scenery has been changing throughout our lives. Have we remained the same? Perhaps more than we feared, perhaps less than they will ever know. What matters here also are the stories, whether they are about Uncle Hubert and his letters back from Normandy in 1944 or Jos�’s aunt’s yard with avocado and pomegranate trees in Saltillo. These are stories about people who had a bit of the same genetic stuff in them that makes us up, so they are especially interesting. And the retellings that reach back deep into our earliest subconscious have an echo that say a lot about who we really are.
Some things simply cannot change, even if the scenery does.
When all of the travel is done, the real question is to whether or not our everyday lives take on some kind of permanent change because of what happened to use between or during our time out on the highways or airports of this nation. Would a trip to a distant, unknown land have been more “broadening” than a trip home to see the family? That’s hard to say. To me, it’s a matter of how shy you are about asking strangers for their life’s story, and how well you speak the native language.
The odds favor the Thanksgiving trip on those scores. But that’s not to say the right level of humility can’t come from a trip to anywhere at all. If it’s done right, the stories might even inspire a novel or a magazine article that makes a few bucks. Now that is a good way to expand one’s mind!