There was a weird era where I had tried to drop out of school in California in order to finish in a "design-your-own-curriculum" school in Vermont. When I submitted this "research paper," which more accurately reflected my current passion obsession as opposed to the research of which I was supposed to demonstrate learning, my professor literally shot down my dreams from the sky. Regardless, I find it telling of that era of my life, having discovered freedom from a societal prison I hadn't realized existed all around me. I was vehement against anyone choosing to live in a static-routine lifestyle, angry at the world for not choosing to travel indefinitely without a care. This was the precursor to my rebellious phase, which hadn't actually even started yet.
I. The Path of Our Lives
It is clear that choices we make in youth affect our decisions later, and slowly the amount of decisions we make either deteriorates or rises with time. The results of these surveys bring up an interesting question: what does the human spirit need in order to feel fulfilled in its later years, and what does the human mind want in order to be satisfied in the moment? While the answer may be too abstract to answer in human terms and lies thick in hypothesis, the reasoning leading to it is an interesting path of striving to understand oneself and their purpose in life, as it were. Everyone wants to be content, and as the definition changes with each person’s conscious or unconsciousness, so does the process. Education, family, and community are prominent factors in shaping a mind to seemingly understand what this definition of content is and whether or not is it is content; but the soul can only be happy through fulfillment, void of common reason. A person must make the decision to explore this process in order to accomplish his act of being in the present, make the most out of his future, and better understand his past. To explore this process, he must leave home to encounter what a different lifestyle and habitat will demand of him.
Our homelife leads us down a certain path. This path is surrounded by landscape sometimes beautiful, sometimes overwhelming. We know other roads exist and can even catch glimpses of them now and then, and while we can sometimes make out some figures walking on them or even hold brief dialogues, we either do not know how to access them or we do not want to walk through the brush. We are interested in what the other paths are like, but the destination of our own looks so pleasing that we would rather just walk comfortably down it with no straying. As youth, it is imperative for us to step off our road for a period of time and see what other cultural conventions, lifestyles, and personal discovery lies in wait for us. Even if it is just to get lost in the shrubbery, taking tracks to live a different life and meeting new types of people expands our minds, hearts, and souls. Through this, we will learn to know ourselves in ways we could have never imagined, and fufill the destiny of our deepest passions that we’d never known we had, making us happy and content in our later years.
II. The Mystery
Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him.” Thoreau outlines here the general result of one who follows his dreams; yet what if these dreams are simply what naturally come to one as dreams from how he grew up, forged by the standard life with the default desirable expectations? Success may not be so unexpected.
In To the Ends of the Earth, Paul Theroux contrasted this point of expectation: “It is fatal to know too much at the outset; boredom comes as quickly to the traveler who knows his route as to the novelist who is overcertain of his plot.” The journey of life should be considered something less of a routine and more of an experience, yet somehow in the history of our Western society, we lost sight. Through capitalism, nationalism, and consumerism, our society has miraculously modified the simple desire for adventure over time so that we assume from the earliest stages of childhood a general outline of what our life will be, from work to love to fulfillment. There is no adventure involved, there is little speculation, and worst of all we do not even realize that there is even little choice.
This predetermined destiny prescribed to us at a young age is nothing but an enchanted form of imprisonment; the day one realizes he is chained by the neck, he doesn’t dare try to escape; for with the chain on he knows where his next meal is coming from, where his next dollars will be earned, and—clouds have mercy—how his next few years will be lived. With such security at moral risk, the question at hand begins to focus on the unknown rather than the known and secure.
For example, would it be more common for one to quit their well-paying career to move far away from anything they know, or for one to quit their well-paying career to stay in the same household and simply find a new job, to experience something new? We’ve been introduced to the first scenario quite often: one defines it as a mid-life crisis. But what’s the second? A desire for such simple change when things are so complacent is simply regarded as foolish; and for good reason, coming from such a society.
Despite the location, despite the race, we as humans view different aspects of life and develop our sense of self through a perspective rooted on our personal history and our upbringing. Certain trees line this path we walk, and we see certain animals. No matter who we are on a personal level, we will always live and experience based on how we’ve thrived in the past—no matter the age and no matter the situation. Passed events will always play a role in any type of decision-making and things that happen, as can be said for the grander scale of mankind itself: mistakes are learned from and with any luck avoided in the future. While the United States of America could never enter another era of witch trials, enslave a race again, or even conquer a nation, that is not to say that it never went through red scares, violent prejudice and racism, and unabashed occupation centuries or even decades later; the process of illumination takes time. Just as we are very familiar with the personal errors we’ve made and strive to resist repeating them, sometimes we get too close to see.
The word mistake is defined by the Oxford American Dictionary as “an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong,” with the word misguided defined as “mislead” and wrong defined as “not correct or true.” The issue at hand lies in the root of these definitions: mislead would imply that it were possible to be lead correctly, but what or who chooses the destination? To a person of Islamic beliefs, the act of killing oneself and others for the greater glory of Allah is not wrong, as most Westerners would label it. It is only man that classifies universal actions under social mores. Forcing children to leave home at a young age to develop a skill or labor may be wrong, yet China couldn’t thrive without this and nor would much of Western economy, which hinges on China’s child labor. A simple way to understand a mistake, therefore, would be to particularize the mistake to the individual, and thus the definition stems back to the path we’ve walked monotonously since birth.
We are introduced to all sorts of cultural conventions while growing up, including religion, education, and community. Universally, religion teaches the right way to live personally and socially, the right things to dedicate time to, and the right way to think. The intensity of its appelation makes it natural and integral to lifestyle and behavior. General theories of educating vary, but frequently they stress the importance of the present stage of education, the importance of the forever arriving “next step” of education, and the overall importance of academic accomplishment. This becomes natural and integral, as goals and opportunities revolve around these ways of thought. Community combines these two conventions and teaches what life is and how to live it, what to expect out of what’s expected, and what defines success in the union of homogenous orthodoxy. It is through the convention of community that we can find our deepest beliefs and most profound comforts—the constant landscape surrounding our life track.
Philosopher John Locke once debated the object of nature versus nurture: are humans who they are naturally, or by through how they were raised? The question can be viewed from multiple angles, but viewed from that of society, the answer is clear. A human is only who he is naturally deep down, but that base person will always be affected by the society he lives in. Even the feral children raised by wolves were no exception to being nurtured by their society:
[Kamala and Amala] seemed to have no trace of humanness in the way they acted and thought. It was as if they had the minds of wolves... They had spent so long on all fours that their tendons and joints had shortened to the point where it was impossible for them to straighten their legs and even attempt to walk upright. They never smiled or showed any interest in human company. The only emotion that crossed their faces was fear. Even their senses had become wolf-like (McCrone)…
Having never been a part of human society, the girls naturally adapted to the population they lived about. Through this discourse, the rationale is simple: we are products of our environment. As nurtured beings we are of course like those who have nurtured us; but we are and will always be who we naturally are at heart—perhaps this is legitimately “natural,” perhaps it will always be from a nurtured source. Despite any and all changes in environment that may arrive, we carry around with us where and who we came from. The factors spawned from these environments, thus, will never cease to breathe within us, and unless we choose to stray from this environment, they will always breathe around us as well.
At first thought, good values and a solid belief system could never be something we would want to forget or lose sight of; in fact, it would be something we would endeavor to hold on to. Living by the rules, having friends, and not breaking any moralistic codes keeps a person satisfied—in his community. The question remains, however, is what if these moralistic codes were not codes at all and by acting them out would not only satisfy us at a different level, but fail to violate any sort of code or rule at all? The response remains muddled in obscurity, as most of the time we cannot fathom what lies beyond the boundaries of our core beliefs.
Christianity is a good example. The statement of the church forbids sex before marriage, as does it forbid drugs, the overconsumption of alcohol, having multiple lovers, or even being homosexual to the interpretation of some. Jealousy and lying is also prohibited, as is murder and the believing in other gods. While the degrees of various aspects may vary in their amplitudes of social immorality, the Christian Bible clearly states that one sin is never above or below any other; yet as social commentary can confirm, a number of these “sins” are conveniently less frowned upon than others. This convenience factor can be reasonably attributed to the notion that the human body and soul enjoy sex, alcohol, and a good time, despite the lack of concrete evidence on the matter.
If a steadfast Christian were to step outside of his world of analogous kin for a long enough period of time to learn, absorb, and adjust, culture shock would immediately be in effect. With casual sex being nothing but a casual act in most places of the world, as well as a common consumption of alcohol and even sparingly recreational use of drugs, the first measure of self-defense taken would be resistance. As he resisted, foreign and alone, he would slowly begin to accumulate dubious thought to the point where the act done by others would no longer be a serious issue in his mind; after all, this new culture of which he’s come into exposure would be full of people happy in a way he’d never seen before. Even if he himself still wouldn’t take part, a certain moment would come where he would start to wonder why he thought like this to begin with—these are life’s pleasures, above all, and what lover of life does not want to enjoy it?
Various things could result out of his situation, but no matter what the outcome, were he to return home, stay, or move on to somewhere new, he would have two points of respectable view on everything related to the matter from that point on. Whether or not he succumbs to this foreign style of life is irrelevant; he’s learned, seen, and possibly even breathed something new and borderline blasphemous to who he was. He would have walked another path for a period of time, and despite which path he ended up on next, he knew what a second path’s landscape and surface looked and felt like. From that point on, he would approach getting to know people, cultures, and almost anything from a different perspective. Two different types of nurture now influence his natural self, and he is a bit more well-rounded, as society dubs the term; whether or not they consciously agree with this state of being.
Another example is crossing the boundary of implemented beliefs that education has set. The structure of education has effectuated the idea that without following it properly, we are bound to fail—no careers will have us, and we are bound to live our lives serving coffee or mopping up vomit. While this is primarily a First World topic, it can be comparable to traditional family trades passed on through generations or, while completely antithetical, traditional credence of insufficiency followed by the impoverish. Essentially, the structure suggests that there is one solid method of accomplishing. This method requires conformity to continue raising standards, and it offers little wandering from the beaten path because this is the familiar route many have walked, including respected rolemodels. If the path leads to a dependable, socially satisfying position, why bother exploring another one?
The structure of education has branched its way into the roots of community as well. There is little leeway and option in the mind of someone subsiting in a community believing that a college degree is one of the few post high school options that shepherds him to guaranteed success. This has changed the definition of prosperity in the minds of most youth, and those who try to break free by following their non-academic passions, such as writers or artists, are discouraged. Naturally, the people who make a living by finding odd temporary jobs while trying to do what they love, such as art or music, live day to day unsure of the next money they will be making. While nothing explicitly states that this model of living is an example of defeat, socially we view this situation as insecure, dangerous, and as not following our original intentions. These people may be on the same trail as the rest, but they have already begun to steer towards the next fork in the road. The problem is the fact that we have these original intentions in the first place, set in place by our roots: community.
Imagining life with no guaranteed income is a frightening thought because it implies a lack of comfort. Without extra money to spend, we are not free to indulge ourselves, we cannot live in the comfort we are used to, and we are forced to live basically. To most First Worlders, this is a dreadful thought, and thus we plan to never have to experience life in this manner. These embedded preconceived notions of how life must be lived has such a connotation due to the solace of our home faction.
Expanding the image, we may know that most of the rest of the world lives under a much different standard of living, yet it is difficult to realize that living near the poverty line in our parts of the world still calls for a higher standard of living than those impoverished in much of the Third World. At the most basic level, warm water, transportation, or electricity are simple comforts we can easily take for granted. At a survival level, most of us do not understand how infrequent serious disease is for us in comparison to these other regions of the world, as is how sufficient our shelter is, or the simplicity of eating; in many ways, the latter has become a problem in the complete opposite direction. We tend to overlook the different blessings in our healthcare or social systems; despite the unfairness or politics involved, it still exists.
Living without the comforts of home does not have to be so drastic, however. In a general sense, the term “life abroad” does not have to solely denote being out of the country. Being abroad from the life we are comfortable with is an experience in itself; it can change as simply as from revolving around suburban values to busy inner city stress, from the city to a rural farmland area, from the farmlands to a relaxed beachtown. Even in areas of the same language and same types of people that use the same freeways only thirty miles away, life can be completely different. General culture and habitat would change quite dramatically, from recreation to food to transportation. The terrain we knew so well is now suddenly seen under the stress of a different season, with divergent colors and characteristics.
On a farm, for example, one would have much more free time to invest in reading, writing, or playing music; whereas in the city, the stress level of a busy career could very well affect the amount of free time he has to spend time doing the things he loves, when the only free time he has is spent merely unwinding after a long day. Perhaps a busy lifestyle encourages him to exercise more, while more relaxed days create in him a physical lethargy. His health can maybe even change with the different food source, as perhaps it is not the industrial agricultural products or frequent fast food nourishing his body while in the rural mountains. It may be that he walks everywhere in the beach town, takes a bus or reliable source of public transportation in the city, has a car in the suburbs, and has no regular need of leaving home while living on a farm. Differing styles of habitual life will present themselves, as new necessity and desire demonstrate the degree of adapation.
From a perspective of community, people can be very different as well. Nearby areas may not recognize and follow religion as strictly, or perhaps the religious activity is equal but elements of the religion are manifested more frequently in the common person. Maybe people are only followers of a religion and practice it much less than their homes or lifestyles would indicate. Education may not be as stressed of an ordeal in a situation where fixing cars, farming, or construction is common; but maybe it is gratefully considered a blessing if the possibility arises for a family. People may also look at life itself completely differently: maybe a farmer wants to one day pack up his things and hitch rides to the city, or maybe an inner city child wants to escape the violence he’s encountered during so much of his life and live in a small town far from everything. The possibilities could go on and on, demonstrating one vital point: the scenery of our life’s journey can be much different than we think we know, but it is up to ourselves to get our shoes muddy and our skin scratched.
Broadening these aspects of different life now, we can imagine them in completely different cultures. New languages, governments, and problems mesh themselves into the mix of lifestyle changes, making the experience more of an adventure. The new country could be much more dangerous, and walking outside at night may not even be allowed. Getting ripped off may be a lot more typical, yet there are no rules to enforce it. Other countries dine differently; in some parts of the First World, meals are a savored event and restaurants change their menu every day to make sure frequent diners do not get bored. Meanwhile, in parts of the Third World, the only true “fine dining” restaurants are meant for the tourists, while when the locals eat out it takes place at family owned shops cooking primarily the same basic meals each day. Calories may not be counted like they are elsewhere, and meal sizes may vary more than drastically; in fact, whole appetites can change in a matter of weeks.
Completely different sports may be the root source of entertainment, and learning the rules and politics of the leagues may make for an easy way of meeting people, who may spend all evening during peak season watching finals games. As different cultures love different sports, perhaps upon meeting someone who likes foreign sports as well can spark up well-bred, interesting conversation. It is possible that they watch completely different styles of cinema and television; even without the combination of a foreign language blurring communication, this can be a culture shock in itself. Recreational time may be a completely different story as well, if financial survival is a constant thought in the minds of the people. Maybe they do not party at all; maybe they drink alcohol so frequently that it is a wonder the commonman’s body is not overweight.
The act of encountering a new lifestyle can conclude itself in various ways, but as we live among these new factions and they become one with us, we will ask question our values more and more; making them stronger or leaving them behind, deciding to move on. Is sex, still frowned upon at home, such a bad thing? Does consuming drugs and alcohol, still morally incorrect at home, really make one an inferior, or destructive, person? Is spending all this money in a materialistic fashion, still culturally standard at home, really right, when many people in the world struggle just to eat a few times a day? Republican or Democrat, smoking or not, the general treatment of other people… A web of questioned values is weaved, and as our nature explores it, we create in ourselves new values, which may or may not join the others hanging from the canopy of our new life track.
Essentially, living in a new lifestyle is a task in itself; experiencing it in another country is an added challenge that does nothing but make one expand even further. Placing oneself out of the comfort zone to experience, wonder, and learn does marvels for the imagination and the thinking process. There will always be the added perspectives of the nurture aspect to his life that would never be there otherwise, and will consequently affect how he makes decisions from then on. The beauty of these benefits does not stop at this level, however, as it is not just the mind that profits from leaving home and experiencing an unknown. As the mind has taken us off the beaten path by growing and learning to think and react in a more exposed manner, the heart begins to sense more love and philanthropy, and the soul begins to explore itself in fresh ways.
If there is one thing that can be said about traveling and learning of the unknown, it is that we get to know people completely strange to us in a light unfiltered by media and social stereotypes. While we already have these images in our mind, we soon learn that not every Middle Easterner is a terrorist, and not every Mexican is a drug dealing, thieving killer. Not every French is unfriendly, and not everyone hates Americans to the point where they do not even give them a chance. On a more local scale, not every farmer or “desert person” is a shotgun waving, prejudice hillbilly, and not every city businessman is so busy and into himself that he can’t throw a dollar into the beggar’s cup.
Not only do the attached social stereotypes of different cultures prove to be untrue, but we can begin to see a level of hospitality we may never have been a part of or noticed before. When people begin to help just for the sake of helping someone in need, or just out of downright friendliness, the warm sensation that even a complete stranger could care opens up internal eyes encouraging recripocation. As we get to know those unlike us, our hearts see the true beauty in someone not based on how we rank and compare them, but how they survive and live in their own culture which may differ so drastically than our own. Even they view us through the eyes of their habitat, as they don’t know what we are like at home. As our hearts begin to experience this universal aura of love in inexplainable, unconventional ways, we have now moved onto a path with a different destination.
Much can be said for soul seeking, but it is never through one direct method that the seek can be accomplished, and it is never accomplished consciously. The best way to understand the benefits the soul will encouter by leaving home is to visualize gains made through three primary channels: material, personal, and unconscious. Material gains include the success one can return home with to show off or to continue his previous life with, like trades or experience. Personal gains include aspects of newfound satisfactions, like inspiration or personality. The channel by which we make unconscious gains encompasses the abstraction of who we are, what makes us who we can be, and the spectrum of universal compassion.
The channel of material gains is the simplest to understand because this is the point of view we take when we think about leaving home for a period of time: what would I get out of it? The first point is obvious: saying we’ve done it. If it were a foreign land, we can return home with new souveniers and memories of something altogether foreign; if it were somewhere nearby, we can still drive through it with a look of understanding, and we will still forever have the memories. We can return home with a new valuable trade or asset, such as a language or a newfound skill that would not have been found otherwise, and could potentially find new work with it. We can return home with a beautiful spouse, or maybe what’s happened will help us in achieving that goal; if that’s priority. On a basic level, even the materialistic gains are solid reason to invest in straying off the path for sometime, because even if the final destination does not change, parts of the road can be easier along the way.
Personal gains revolve more around our personal goals as life continues. Learning a language and making friends in the process may be considered a more materialistic gain as viewed from the outside, but when taken as an experience and not a result, it is personal success. Falling in love, so to speak, can not only happen with a partner but with a lifestyle, a culture, or a concept; and it is through falling in love that we somehow end up changing our plans to accommodate this love. Perhaps inspiration was found, and now writing of it, learning more about it, or the goal to see more of it has been recognized and pursued. More compassion and less prejudice, seeing things with a different light, and more general understanding derived from the different levels of nurture is personal success.
Aristotle said, “The man who is truly good and wise will bear with dignity whatever fortune sends, and will always make the best of his circumstances.” When plans for the future are completely naturally drastically altered, personal success has been achieved—because we genuinely want this change to take place. No longer is it straying from the path, but it’s seeking the next one, knowing the road has gotten too compressed for the internal ambition. While one could originally plan to go to college, get married and start a family, or go travel the world, a sudden falling in abstract love, heartfelt inspiration, or personal expansion could make him decide to pursue other options; and what better way to seek something new than with a desiring attitude? Passion is what runs the soul, and with newfound fervency, there is no telling where this new path can take someone; even if winds around and heads towards his original destination, the journey will have been much more fulfilling.
Michael Crichton, in Travels, stated, “Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closets full of your clothes, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.” Adjusting ourselves to new lifestyles may not be a conscious decision, but the process happens despite attitude, effort, and comprehension. Be it through clear, conscious changes such as modes of transportation and usage of free time, or through more complex adaptations such as ways of interpreting society and accomodating passions in a foreign manner, the body, mind and soul will inevitably adapt to new environments. As we consciously learn about new communal beliefs, people, and lifestyles, we subconsciously begin to reveal inside ourselves new components of our persona that our homes and origins failed to expose. As these virgin elements better fulfill the role of self in this new environment, we begin to subsist through them, as the elements of self we see on our original path does not meet our new requirements for what one could label “contentedness.” The foreign, new road has transformed into something more natural feeling to what’s come to pass inside of us. The journey’s end is no longer what we strive to reach, and we make the most out of the adventure.
All one must do to explore the unknown is to walk away from what he knows. This could mean anything from sacrificing what we view as the positive happenings in life such as foregoing a career, walking away from a loved one, or postponing an education to quitting the bad habits keeping us at a standstill, such as drugs, unhealthy relationships, or detrimental tendencies. If we tend to rarely settle down with anything, perhaps this sacrifice will involve establishing ourselves to a certain place to see where that path can lead for a while. From no matter what perspective the act is viewed, there is still sacrifice that must take place. Despite how ready or willing we may feel to give up something or move on, there is still uncertainty and fear involved. It may take a difficult first step to surrender our comforts to explore the path untraveled in our minds, but once past the initial brush where we can see a wide-open horizon, everything is possible.
Our home leads us down a certain path. Sometimes we can see other roads in the hazy distance, but our view is too obstructed by tall hedges of conformation to see where they end up. We are interested in where the other roads lead, but due to the amount of effort it would take to trudge through the shrubbery, we would rather walk comfortably down the road we know as safe where we know who we are and who we will be. It is imperative for us to step off this road for a period of time, even if it is just to get lost in the shrubbery, to see where these other roads lead or what the path in between can offer. By doing this, we will learn to know ourselves in ways we could have never imagined, and fufill the destiny of our deepest passions that we’d never known we had, making our soul happy and content. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said, “People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” The journey is the experience, and a journey never has to end, if the taker doesn’t feel the need.
McCrone, John. The Myth of Irrationality. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1993.