Travel resets the wonder button

Republic square PARISThe recent hiatus and travel provided some time to experience the broader world and consider the themes of happiness, belonging, compassion and so on from a perspective outside of my normal (narrow?) day to day. Being exposed to centuries of foreign culture for weeks at a time was thrilling and at the same time the flood of details was enormously overwhelming in person. That’s what’s nice about armchair travelling or documentaries – the focus is supplied, the details are managed, the experience is curated for you by the book editor or narrator. In person, the reality is that you’re in queues, desperate to find a loo (or to find the right change to use the loo), hungry, and/or transfixed by the fact that each street has different ornate light posts (or some other mindboggling thing that everyone else is able to walk past but you want to scream to the world “LOOK AT THIS!”).

It is of course an evolutionary survival mechanism that all animals have developed a way of filtering information to only that which is most likely of value to them. Humans have loads of biologically initiated filters. For example, we are good at depth perception and spotting movement (as for a long time we were a prey species) once we got the hang of tools we’ve worked to our strengths ever since. We create more tools that work mostly by combining our sight with our hands (every thought about the inputs and outputs of a computer?) rather than, say, through sound and other frequencies of vibration. Because we build all the things we use, we tend to reinforce our own preferences and strengths, we also send ourselves the message that we’re increasingly successful by this filtering. So to travel to somewhere completely different, where comparatively few things were familiar, was to bypass the existing filters and be opened up all over again to confusion, curiosity and wonder.

Wonder is exhausting.

Great, but exhausting. Confusing too, and when you come home you go through it all over again with things that you used to comfortable with and now you’re not that sure about. That’s also amazing (and exhausting). Before you know it the day-to-day of going to work intrudes and you find yourself back in the harness of being a wage slave, but this is the gift of travel. It is possible (necessary) to remember that we have a choice about the way we see and experience the world. It is not just fun to go somewhere else, it helps train our brain in remember that our filters aren’t truths. For us to find ways to solve the problems we’ve created in our worlds, the most useful thing to do is to think differently about it.

You would probably like to punch the next person who suggests to you that you “think outside of the box” about something causing trouble. I know I’d love to. It is useless. If we could, we would! So instead let’s share ways of learning to shift our perspective, and one of the critical steps to that is to realise what things actions or ‘realities’ we’re taking for granted, what we’re valuing and filtering for, then we can put those assumptions aside and invite in some wonder. A recent article talked about how cities, by their man-mad nature, reinforce some of our mental models and that this creates a (another) blind spot in how we face challenges. Especially ecological challenges.

The difference between watching a documentary about a city and being lost in the metro there is an experience of being ‘reset’, of being a beginner, a foreigner. How valuable it can be to know that you know nothing. We can be the best kind of stranger to ourselves and to others by sharing perspectives and becoming more than the sum of our filters. Let’s get wonder-ful together.

Good housekeeping

A woman empties a pail of bathwater and a baby into a stream

We’re caretakers here. We get to enjoy our time and we leave everything behind when it is time to go.

Every human child from today onward that will ever be born, will be born right here on this single planet, Earth. What they will have for their lives and their children, is partly up to us, from what we build, and partly from what we consume that can never be replenished.

What should they expect from us?

Do good housekeepers use everything until it breaks? Is it really ok that we allow our leaders to exist on a three-year re-election cycle that doesn’t respond well to polling on any issue where short term extravagance needed to be weighed against long term (generational).

You get to make a choice on how much you care about what kind of an ecosphere we’re bequeathing to future generations. It is one of the core aspects of what sustainability actually means (remember that the next time you hear a public figure using the word and you’ll immediately be able to fine-tune your bullshit meter) and also one of the basic skills (delaying gratification) needed in order to mature into adulthood.

So what’s in it for you?

Great question.

Answer: Nothing.

No gold star, no pat on the head, no special tax breaks. Nothing.

This is part of our duty if we want to be citizens of this world. The world, and our species, stretch in time both behind us and ahead of us. We are part of a bigger body of life. All the future of our species (and many others who live here too) are asking of those of us alive right now, is that we keep good house. Don’t trash the place, be considerate of the neighbours, enjoy what we can while leaving plenty for others to share. Any reasonable person would consider it common sense.

Our duty exists whether or not there is a brighter future in it for us personally. We may or may not accept it or like it, but that’s how it is. We can stay as children and wait for someone else to clean up for us, or put our shoulders into the task ourselves. Take a breath or two before you react to that idea. Human life isn’t all about progress and sharing doesn’t mean going without completely.

Later on we’ll get into more of what sustainability might mean day to day, but for right now, while we’re thinking about the values and meaningful lives we yearn for, it is timely to remember that liberty is always bonded to responsibility.

Someone who had a very concrete experience of freedom was Victor Frankl. If you’ve not yet read his famous book (Man’s search for meaning) please consider doing so (it is both short and non-academic). Despite the situation it discusses, I can almost guarantee that it will make you feel more positive and think about life’s challenges with a deeper sense of personal resilience. let’s give him the last word today.

Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Image credit.