I have often written that travel has changed me. An obvious, and inadequate statement. Yet, I constantly struggled to put into words what exactly had changed. Simply, it was a feeling. Everything was different somehow, better, and worse. But mostly just different. For many, travel is humbling, enlightening, or inspiring. For others, all they take away is a blanketed idea of “thank God I don’t live here.”. There is no generalization. Just as each traveler perceives the adventure differently, what each takes away is often starkly different. I suppose I ought to clarify, the travel to which I refer is not a vacation, though a perfect worthwhile and even occasionally enlightening use of time, but what I’m referring to I can only equate to a journey. The sort where you are thrust out into the world, forced to encounter it as it is, in all of it’s awe-inspiring beauty, and all of it’s cold ugliness; exposed. It is impossible to venture out into the world in this way, and not to be changed. Perhaps it is life changing, but maybe it’s much less, a small seed that will go undetected, but will continue to shape your life in a way unique to the experience. If you were to suggest travel has not changed you, I would be emboldened to suggest that you are either simply wrong, or that there is something greatly wrong with you has a human being.
How can a person, for example, see extreme poverty and not be moved on some level? After my experience in East Africa I would have said that I was humbled, and appreciative of everything I had. But that felt somehow too obvious, even if true, it was too easy to say. And in fact I was immensely affected by those I met, not because of their poverty, but rather, in-spite, of their often oppressive, or comparatively difficult lives; that they managed to be some of the most giving and loving people I have ever had the great pleasure in meeting. Though certainly some were depressed, bitter, or angry (and who could blame them), but many were not. The level of giving of some was great, and one woman in particular even brought me to tears of gratitude, a first in my relatively comfy life I just happened to be born into. I couldn’t make sense of it at the time, but it shook me. I couldn’t quite grasp that these people were happy, they had little but each other, and worked mostly repetitive manual labor jobs. The electricity faltered, the government didn’t help when they needed it most, and yet their warmth was inspiring. Thinking of home, I couldn’t understand why the wealthiest people I knew tended to be the coldest, least happy, and obsessive people, while those in poverty would take me in, a complete stranger simply because, I like them, occupy this earth. Why would they be so kind to me, what I had I done to ever deserve this?
Until recently, I have been unable to articulate what had changed, and why that particular event affected me so strongly. And although I can still, not put into words exactly, I understand at least a little more now, a few years removed. My life up until that point had been a driven existence, in the ever pursuit of success. What Africa showed me, amongst much else, was that what I perceived as success was essentially a warped illusion. When confronted with this notion, I began to see clearly that much of what I thought I wanted for myself, I actual didn’t. A startling realization for sure.
If you were to ask a seven year old version of myself what I thought was success, I probably would have said something regarding money. After all, my life was pleasant, and I couldn’t see how that would ever change, so what I wanted wasn’t so much food, or stability, but probably, a few more My Little Ponies. My parents have never instilled in me that money equates happiness. Both of them worked (and continue to work) extremely hard to provide for the family, which I quickly learned was all that really mattered. But of course, I was a kid, and I would outgrow this, it was essentially step 1: success for money’s sake.
As I went through high school I had decided to base my worth as a person on tangible, measurable elements. I was smart, driven, and incredibly competitive. It was easy, A meant I was perfect, B was normal, and God forbid I ever be something as awful as normal. To define my life in black and white was certainly easier than addressing the many variants in between. If I did well, and was “better” than most I would be successful, and therefor happy. I regard this as a cortical malfunction rearing it’s ugly head, how could I help that my brain was yet to be fully functional? But simply, it was an easy way to avoid confronting that itching feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Of course my straight A record made me happy, but it was relatively empty. I chose my intended career path (medicine) in part because I was good at science, and genuinely cared for others, but also because it seemed to me, the pinnacle of success in life, and therefor the key to happiness. Of course, those who decide to become doctors because they have a genuine passion for medicine, or want to make a substantial difference in the lives of their patients could hardly find a more nobel pursuit. But I, like an unfortunate amount of current med-students and doctors would be in the profession for wrong reasons; namely, their ego. Step 2: success for the sake of self aggrandizement.
When I was thrust out into the world, I was forced, shoved really, out of my mental bubble and quickly understood that success as I had consider it was simply, not true. Wealth and prestige did not necessary indicate success, nor did the opposite suggest otherwise. A simple lesson, but for someone who had previously based their self worth on perfectionism and measurable attributes, it was utterly shocking. What I wanted in life, was to be happy, and I thought I knew the formula to attain that. When I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor, I didn’t feel as if I had an epiphany and would now dedicate my life to foreign aid (or something), happily ever after and what not. Instead, I felt lost, for the first time in my life. I had no idea what to do next, the very situation that scared me to the core; losing direction.
It has taken much time, much reflection, endless tears of frustration to see that travel has in a sense, saved my life. Perhaps I would have discovered it another way, but I could have easily just spent nearly a decade of my life, of my youth in pursuit of something that wasn’t true to who I was. I know I wouldn’t have been happy. Not fully anyway. I would have worked hard, and sacrificed much for something I only wanted, to oversimplify, because it was the ultimate symbol of accomplishment. I may not have regretted it, after all, I would have the opportunity to help others, but it wouldn’t have been right. To say that our most valuable lessons stem from difficult situations is obvious, but in this case, adequate. I have changed in countless ways over the past few years. In the few months I’ve been away, I have fit In years worth of adventures and lessons, but this seemingly simple realization has been one of the most significant lessons I’ve learned in my life to date. So perhaps success is in fact so subjective that we, as individuals have the great pleasure in defining what it means to each of us. Ambiguity, which previously induced fear has faded away and led to a sort of blissful realization of choice. For me, success is simply to love those around me, and in turn be loved. To work hard and believe in something bigger than myself (whatever that might be), so that perhaps I can better the world around me, and even myself.
Enter step 3: success, as defined by, and for the sake of self-fullfillment.