Sometimes our beautiful world seems like a scary place. The news that we are drip-fed through our devices often paints a biased and disproportionally terrifying picture. Technologically, we are more connected, but in many ways more isolated than ever.
Instead of using interconnectedness to seek out data that broadens our knowledge and understanding, too often we seek out information that reinforces our prejudices and fears. Politicians and others understand this trait well and weaponize it to manipulate and control our actions in ways that favor them.
Once ideas, even false ones, have taken hold, it is much more difficult to take in information that challenges those ideas. Challenging beliefs and preconceptions can be uncomfortable. For me, one of the best ways to overcome false information about the world is to travel.
Travel is the antidote to our fears.
There is a tendency to feel out of control and more fearful when we are unfamiliar with or we don’t understand something. When I hear people who don’t travel expressing fears about faraway places I like to ask them how they formed their opinion. Usually it is from outdated news stories, friend of a friend anecdotes, or politically motivated tales concocted to promote agendas.
It is rare to meet a fearful traveler and it is even more rare to meet a traveler that grows more fearful as they gain experience. There is something telling in that.
Sure, there are places in the world that are inadvisable to visit, for example, disaster and conflict zones, but they are extremely small. Demonizing strangers is easy. It is harder to demonize friends. Traveling, getting to know the world and connecting with people helps reduce the risk that areas of conflict will spread.
Through traveling, you learn quickly that it is foolish to put people into categories and that the cartoonish impressions that others ascribe to other nationalities are invariably inaccurate. In fact, when you see someone thoughtlessly demonizing any group they do not know well, it says much more about the accuser than the accused.
Through traveling, we learn that people of all cultures share basically the same hopes and aspirations that we have. Yes, outside appearances are often vastly different. We pray to different Gods or no Gods at all. We dress in different manners and have different traditions and languages. Some cultures are outgoing and others are more reserved and stoic; but all cultures love their children, are proud of their heritage, want to improve conditions for their families and leave a legacy of some sort behind.
Through traveling our preconceptions are challenged and you will see other, perhaps better, ways of accomplishing positive things.
By its very definition, “news” is something that is unusual or doesn’t happen very often. That is why, behind our borders, the bad stories are the ones we hear and the good ones go unreported. It is because the world seems focused on negative things, that we not only need to go see for ourselves, we need to be informal ambassadors for what is good in us and our country.
Instead of building walls and barriers to understanding, we should be searching for common ground, celebrating our differences and encouraging humankind to be more tolerant of each other. I am not so naive as to believe everyone is good, but no matter your political persuasion, those that benefit from spreading hate and division are often thwarted when we take the time to meet the world.
No, being traveled does not make you a better person, but neither does uninformed or irrational fear. Learning about this world gives us freedom over those who would use fears to cynically and selfishly influence and control us. Becoming a better person requires being open to knowledge and willingness to change.
If you go to faraway places and get outside of the comfortable bubbles that we build around ourselves, you will become more informed. That is good for you and the planet.
Freedom is something we talk about, but don’t often exercise. Mindlessly waving flags and reciting pledges is not freedom. Acquiring the knowledge to critically examine and analyze your circumstances and taking action to act upon that knowledge is freedom.
Mark Twain said it best: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.’