This week I joined the Facebook generation. That is, I was already in the generation (I think; these things are so confusing), but finally attended the party in person. For a woman who lives in the country and spends days never speaking a word to anyone, Facebook’s an extremely noisy place. The “excrutiating minutae” of countless lives, as someone put it. (Sheila, was that you?)
I also found, on first impression, a rather depressing place. Now, being a cynic myself, maybe I just have more cynical and depressed acquaintances than most people. But the fact of the matter is that crossing from the travels and travel writing world over to Facebook was a jarring culture shock. There’s a lot of frustrated and unhappy people out there. Not my friends of course, but following links to friends of friends of friends and their blogs and websites did not lead me to much optimism. (Plenty might respond that, due to the economy and other circumstances, they’ve got reason to be frustrated, unhappy, cynical, angry, bitter, … well, we’ve all got our stories.)
I found myself running back to the Perceptive Travel umbrella, the travel literature world where the day is ruled neither by cynicism nor by vacuous happiness, but by something of a life raft in any age: curiosity. Those with itchy feet who keep traveling, and those with itchy pens who keep writing about it, seem to be a breed apart, a people who are always eager for the bend in the road, no matter what it might hold. That doesn’t mean they’re blind or ignorant — far from it.
Most of us who read Perceptive Travel, World Hum, books by Jan Morris and Colin Thubron, and other great travel writing, seem to care deeply about environmental and social issues. Extensive travel would expose any of us to enough degradation and deprivation in the world to open up a whole planet of depression. Yet it doesn’t. Even people I know who don’t or are unable to travel, but who, as Thoreau did, travel the world in imagination or their backyards are strangely able to keep a balanced perspective.
Which leads me to the question in the title: are wanderlustians happier than most people? Is curiosity a remedy for despondence?
Scenes in Moscow have broken my heart; environmental threats in Scotland can make me desperate. I’m sure you’ve seen as much, and worse. Yet somehow the traveling we do ensures a kind of equilibrium, an inner sense of yin and yang that you couldn’t get with a year of meditation classes. The world is going to hell in a handbasket in some places; and it is opening up like racous buds in spring in another.
Maybe it’s not that we’re happier, but have a daily awareness that the excrutiating minutae of our lives can be shed in a moment, if we truly wanted to run away. And that in every success or adversity, we’re balanced — travel gives us the sure-footed knowledge that every experience is somehow shared and met by someone across the globe.
I keep going back to a Jan Morris book I read some time back, A Writer’s World (reviewed here). In the epilogue of this book, Morris relates short stories of confused and disillusioned people on different continents, including in her native Wales, and is left wondering what solace or advice she could give them. “The lingering reproaches of imperialism, the mysteries of technology, the antipathies of race, shifts of balance, bewilderments of progress, corrosions of money and power — all, it seemed to me, were reaching some kind of dark climax. …
“The best we can do, I have come to think, is to ignore the conundrum, as we move from one age to another, and to my mind there need be only one commandment to help us cope: Be Kind. … Flexible enough to allow for free will and human frailty, it is, at the core of it, solid as granite.”
As a travel writer and journalist who started out as James Morris and had a sex change in the 70s, when it was even less acceptable than it is now, Morris has faced her own share of adversity and seen a solid lifetime of changes good and bad. And after it all, she is left with a deep love of the world and its people, and only one maxim: be kind. Which seems to me the epitome of the wisdom all of us travelers and travel writers are seeking. The balanced perspective. The world can be good, it can be evil, and through it all what we learn is to be kind to one another.