The True Heart of Travel by F. Daniel Harbecke

Daniel Harbecke writes what he likes to call “applied existentialism.” His work-in-progress is called A Philosophy of Travel, which views the meaningful experience of life through the metaphor of travel. His work appears on the Matador Network’s Brave New Traveler site, and his own site which should be ready “real soon.” In the nonce, he can be found fishing on Lake Internet in the picturesque sprawl of the Chicago suburbs, doting on his lovely wife and planning his return to daytime television.

Ask people why they travel, and you’ll likely get a variety of answers. “I want to get away from it all.” “I heard Cancun is nice this time of year.” “I’ve never left the country.” Very rarely will you hear the reply “to pursue meaning.” Yet meaning is the secret reason behind any journey. No matter what the journey may be, meaning is the stimulus.

What we hold as meaningful shapes everything we do. Nowhere is this more apparent than in travel. The journeys we take can tell us who we are and what matters to us, and they can tell us about others as well.

There are endless reasons for why we go places. Some of us want to escape our normal routine – a pause to our works, or to put them in perspective. Or perhaps we want to see something marvellous. Or answer a powerful call. Or quench a burning curiosity. Or find ourselves when we’ve lost our way.

Whether it’s a trek, junket, mission, cruise, voyage or pilgrimage, each is a focus of a specific meaning we wish to connect with. Whatever label we give to describe the intent of our travels, they’re all expressions of meaning. Because of this, a journey can lead to a deep transformation – not only in who we are, but the people we come in contact with.

Ask people why they travel, and you’ll likely get a variety of answers. “I’ve always wanted to see Paris.” “China sounds like such a fascinating place.” “My mother grew up in a tiny village outside Krakow, and I want to see it for myself.” Many times, the meaning is a part of the place itself. Simply being someplace is the point of the journey.

But we must be careful not to confuse a journey’s meaning with its destination. A very common error, it mistakes a value with the vehicle that conveys it, akin to confusing the feeling of being full with eating a good meal. When we fixate on “being full” all the time, we ignore the virtues of an experience versus its effect. It’s to consume time rather than savor it, but never feeling satisfied.

Too often we meet people who rattle off lists of where they’ve been or what they’ve done, without a trace of appreciation for their fortune. In this self-serving drive for superiority, the reward of the moment is lost to the one out of reach – hoarding badges but none of their merits. This is merely going through the motions as opposed to travel: passing through life but not really living in it.

Putting a destination before meaning is putting the cart before the horse. It’s the difference between “I want to get married” and “I want to find someone I can spend my life with.” Or “I want to be happy” and “I want to find relevance in my life.” Or “I want to go someplace” and “I want to pursue a sense of meaning.”

Ask people why they travel, and you’ll likely get a variety of answers. “I want to help make peoples’ lives better.” “I hear they need a teacher in that area.” “I want to understand another way of life.” The most profound journeys involve connecting with others in a meaningful sense.

When we travel, we don’t simply go someplace different. We open our eyes and ears to a new way of life so that we may see our own more clearly. Even if it’s a short trip or a specific goal – or even if we only reach out from home – travel lets us move beyond our confines and relate in a broader perspective.

Gladly, there are people who understand the subtle distinction between a journey and its significance. They’re the ones who make positive and lasting change in the world. The ones who understand that the spirit of travel is becoming involved with the people and places you go. The ones whose “counting countries” mission is a growing travelogue of places that hold a piece of their heart.

Travel is a pursuit of meaning that has power to transform us and the people we encounter. The best travelers are those who can shed the rigid objective and experience another part of the world through the intuitive, relating to other human beings through the mutual language of humanity. And the best travels are those in which we realize that some routes of meaning are better than others – the ones that help others find their meaning.

Thank you Daniel for this inspiring article! 

What do you think about travel as a pursuit of meaning?

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