Travel & The Power Of Context

When we picture ourselves, we tend to look at ourselves relative to our situation and that requires some sort of a benchmark. That benchmark is often a group of people similar to ourselves:

  • Co-workers/classmates
  • Neighbours
  • Friends
  • Siblings
  • Teammates

Whoever we compare ourselves to, they are usually close to home. 

We never seem to feel threatened or superior to someone far away or someone much better or much worse off than us. It's always someone much closer to our current lot in life that seems to make the cut or someone who shares a common past. 

Another flaw in our thinking when we seek to compare our situation to others, is that we seem to compare ourselves along external dimensions, be they:

  • Attractiveness/fitness
  • Material possessions
  • Education
  • Family situation
  • Job title

The means by which we compare ourselves to others is unfortunate because it tends to blind us to how "well off" we are overall. We forget about how our standard of living would have been unfathomable just a century ago and that we take thousands of conveniences and resources for granted on a daily basis.

Travel Offers Context

That's why I love travel so much. It's my way of gaining the context I need to look internally for contentment as opposed to letting external cues tell me whether I'm "allowed" be happy or not, letting me know that I have "enough" for now.

In broad terms, travel reminds me of the bigger picture. It reminds me that:

  • My reality is a minuscule part of a very big world. 
  • The world has existed long before me and will exist long after I'm gone.
  • No one cares about my situation, only me and that the amount of energy I waste comparing my situation to others is my loss and no one else's.
  • Happiness is achieved when we stop trying to pursue it.

(For a great post on the importance of travel, see this one by Brian at Luke1428).

A New Bit of Context

My latest travels in Africa did not disappoint. One particular outing is etched in my mind. I had the opportunity to visit a homestead in an African village near Victoria Falls. The homestead featured 3 huts, the matriarch's, the children's and the kitchen, with another one under construction. These huts were made of wood, earth, grass and cow dung. The family consisted of a widow, her grown daughter and three grandsons. They practiced subsistence living by harvesting a yearly crop, foraging in nearby green spaces, bartering and paying for necessities with money made from selling handmade baskets at the market. They had no electricity and no running water. 

The difference between our respective standards of living was blatantly obvious of course, if not unexpected. What was unexpected was the fact that they seemed to want for nothing. This family was resourceful, reusing and repurposing what we would readily discard. This resourcefulness, this self-reliance, made the need for material possessions and money secondary. They seemed content with their situation, content to live in the traditional way, despite being close to a town with modern amenities.

My reality was as incomprehensible to them as theirs was to me. But what I did recognize, what did come through, was contentment. There was power in their state of being and that power didn't come from comparing themselves to others. It came from the knowledge that they would be OK. They had what they needed in the moment and could find or secure what they needed in the future. They also knew they had a village, a group of people they could call upon if they truly found themselves in dire straits, and vice versa.

What a different way of being than what we're taught to strive for in the Western world. We're taught to always strive for more. More is better. We're also taught that we need help from countless products, services, solutions to live a happier and fuller life. We learn that store-bought is better than homemade. We also start to believe that if we don't benefit from the same amenities as those we compare ourselves to, well, that has to mean that we can't feel happy or satisfied. Right?

What this family taught me is that self-reliance is what is most likely to lead to contentment. It was a lightbulb moment because I saw the personification of the idea that if you don't feel you need anything, then you don't. That if you do end up needing something, you have the means to get it. Need is relative, not absolute, and we are at the controls.

Self-Reliance Is Key

That way of thinking is what I love about the concept of financial independence. The more financial flexibility you have or the less you need to live on, the greater your level of freedom. The greater your options, the more content you can be, because it becomes about the feeling itself, not about the stuff you can get from what your financial security can afford you. (A recent post by Noonan at Frugal Fringe delves deeper into this topic and is well worth the read.)

I won't soon forget that experience. What in the past was a life lesson that I felt was true I now know to be true.

That's the power of travel: it offers context and context delivers a better perspective. I can't think of a better way to learn both about the world and about how to live a fuller and happier life.

What does travel do for you?