Is Physical Travel necessary to understand life?
This question might seem an absurd one. Isn’t this what life about? A complete absurdity. Yet, this question was posed during one of the philosophical meetups, which I attend. Though I contributed little to nothing during the meetup, this question made me think. And since I am a bit more comfortable penning my thoughts than speaking those, here is my attempt to answer this question, about the concept called Life.
I will attempt to answer this question in 2 parts. First part is about travel and the second part is about the idea of understanding life.
I remember watching in awe, Alain de Bottom’s video on Travel. He said, I am paraphrasing here, that people travel because they wish to overcome their day to day sufferings, but they fail to realize that the sufferings, too, travel with them. No matter how far one travels or how long one goes away from the place of living, one must return to his/her starting place at some point. Unless you are moving away permanently, which I prefer not to call as Travel.
People travel, thinking that they will meet new people & help learn about the places. But are we really doing that in our travels? What happens during a travel? We might meet very few local people, who will obviously don’t represent the whole population in the region. These few people could be nice to us, helping us form a positive opinion about the region, or these people could screw us and leaves us with a bad impression about the entire place. Either of the outcomes is neither conclusive nor definitive. If this is the case, then I wonder what we are learning from the people we meet during the travel.
People also might travel to places, which they have read about or heard from others. When we read about a place or listen from others, we would have formed some opinions in our mind about the place & people. So, people will go to such places with an expectation. As it often turns out, the reality could be exact opposite of our expectations. This will leave us disappointed. The fact that we travel to a place only to be disappointed, questions the usefulness of the travel and what it could teach us. May be, from this experience, we learn that our lives are nothing but a series of disappointments??
One might argue that people read about places and form a negative opinion about them. And when they visit such places, the reality could be way better than what they had thought/imagined about that place. However, people will not travel to the places, of which, they don’t have high opinions. They might travel only due to external circumstances, which are not in their control. Unless one desperately wanted to visit such places out of his/her own volition.
Another aspect of travel is that often people tend to travel with only those who are known. They go together, see places together, eat together & return together. If one does this, then what new learning we expect out of travel. And how different will one’s understanding of life be, after travel as opposed to his/her understanding of life before such travel? Okay, let us concede that those who travel alone or with strangers tend to learn new things about other people. But is learning about other people part of understanding life? Shouldn’t understanding of one’s own self be the only precondition to understand life?
Travel tends to give one a sense of pride, on knowing that one’s own life is better than that of the local people. Or it tends to send one into depression arising out of envy/jealousy/inability/ for being unable to live in a place like the one he/she visited. This could go a step further and might lead the traveler to hating his/her habitat. So, the noble pursuit of understanding life through travel has turned one into a miserable being.
Till now we focused on the travels undertaken by one’s volition. And what about travels, which are forced by external factors on people? Jews’ travel to concentration camps, refugees travel to an alien land are the ones that come to our mind. Are these travels teaching the persecuted people any life lessons? And how will these lessons help them understand life?
Travel at its best helps people have varying experiences. People might change the way in which they look at their lives. Does this mean people understood about life through the travel? May be yes or may be No. I would say that it is better that people understand about themselves first, rather than understanding life. Life is a subjective idea. Not everyone can follow a template, set by others. If this is the case, then what does understanding life even mean?
Second part of my discussion is about the question of understanding life. Do we really want to understand a thing/concept, and is it really possible to completely understand a concept/thing thoroughly? Take for instance Gravity. We went through early human phases, without understanding gravity. But that didn’t make our lives miserable in any ways. No one can deny the fact that our lives got better when we understood gravity. However, scientists still fight about the concept of gravity. If the existing knowledge of gravity turns out to be insufficient or outright wrong, then what does it mean to us? If it were the case, then we might feel a false sense of relief having lived better lives with a misunderstood concept of gravity.
Similarly, even if one were to understand life through travel, that doesn’t mean that his/her understanding wouldn’t turn incorrect/insufficient in longer run. If your concept or your understanding of life changes on a regular basis, then what does travel help us understand? I don’t have an answer to the question.
Life, as innumerable philosophers have proclaimed, has no inherent meaning or purpose. I would extend this argument a bit further and say that, life is not just meaningless, it is unfathomable too. Kierkegaard, in my opinion, was an optimist when he mentioned that, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”. One wish to understand life, when one must design a life based on his/her understanding. But if life can be understood only backwards, then I don’t see the point in understanding the life.
Let us give some leeway and accept that some people really do understand life. When one says, “I understood something”, it means (in general) that he/she has no further questions about that thing/concept. That you can answer all the questions that life throws at you. If you reach this stage of your life, then wouldn’t your life become monotonous? The moment it happens, I believe that, the meaninglessness of the life reaches its logical conclusion, i.e. death. I would like to end this article by quoting one of my favorite movie dialogues, which I find relevant, “I think the day we figure out everything about our lives, is the day we die”.