Travel and Novelty

Travel is not just about the places we go, but our experience of those places. The effect it has on us is comes from our exposure to novelty. And seeing new things forces us into greater awareness

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“Adventure is the discovery of the self, it is both feared and desired.” - Joseph Campbell

In these times of restricted movement, it’s good to remember that travel is not just about the places you go. Although unique cultures and natural beauty are worthy of our attention, there is always a common denominator in your experience of them: you. It is impossible to separate your experience from yourself, and so everything interesting and beautiful must be interesting and beautiful to you (leaving aside for a moment ideas of objective uniqueness and beauty).

Although the inherent characteristics of a place are often what draws us to them, in terms of the effects that travel has on us – and why so many of us are sometimes inexplicably drawn to go places or do things for no other reason than we want to do ‘something different’ – the subjective desire is to experience the unknown. This is the same thing that draws our attention to shiny things – a search for novelty. But novelty does not just exist in faraway lands – it is entirely in our own minds.

This year has been a paradox with regards to novelty: on the one hand, it is obviously an unprecedented time for anyone alive. On the other hand, the responses to the pandemic have forced us into periods of intensive restriction, and the daily wrestling with the stiflingly familiar. Yet this current experience with our familiar worlds of work, our homes - and away from normal social interaction - ourselves, is in itself unique and novel, a chaotic experience for most of us as we deal with the ever-growing possibilities of the unknown.

Order is an unspoken of and unseen aspect of well-being and mental health, though we all instinctively know what it is. It is in the familiar, the routine, the things we do everyday. It is the difference between what we do and don’t do; what we know and don’t know; what we like and don’t like. This need for the familiar is part of McDonalds’ business model – people will choose the familiar yet harmful multinational corporation in favour of the unknowns of the food stall in the street beside it – potentially nutritious and delicious but also potential transporter of salmonella.

Security and order are good, and are necessary. To be constantly moving, adrift from all order and routine, is to exist in chaos, a state which few are fit to survive for extended periods. Aristotle said that “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god”. And most of us descend quite rapidly to the level of beasts when cut adrift from society', which we can take to mean ‘normality’: friends, family, routine and the usual order that holds the centre of our lives.

Chaos occurs when we are presented with the unfamiliar; too much and too soon. Small and spontaneous encounters with the unfamiliar are a normal part of life, and we mostly deal with such things in our stride, not giving them too much thought. It is only when the unfamiliar is of such a large scale that we are not expecting it, and are unequipped to deal with it, that it becomes an issue. For example, a death is always tragic, though unexpected deaths are all the more difficult to deal with. But even death is less traumatic for us when it is expected in some way.

Everyone is on a journey through space and time, both dimensions containing futures full of unknowns. The progress of time is inescapable, but our progress through space is usually much more up to us. However, the effect of travelling through either is that in uncovering the fog of war from the map of the physical or temporal unknown – through the passing of years or the exploration of spaces – the mind uncovers the map of its own psychological field.

This involves the updating of our existing knowledge of the world with new information, the integration of novel experiences and perspectives into what we already know about the world, or the destruction of ideas we once believed and have discovered to be false, to be replaced with newly created ones. This information should be beneficial to us, and help us order our lives in better ways. When faced with extreme novelty, the result is stress, as it becomes more and more difficult for the mind to fill in the blanks with certain possibilities.

“When change isn’t allowed to happen as a process, it becomes an event.”

                – some guy on twitter.

We all resist change. It is natural. But an inescapable reality of life is that change occurs, in every single moment of existence, from the level of smallest cell right up to entire cultures and mighty civilisations. As Einstein observed, life is like riding a bicycle – if you stop pedalling, you’ll fall off. This ‘pedalling’ involves the constant assimilation of new information in order to deal with the ups and downs and flow of life. We all grow up, time passes, and to use another saying: “If you don’t do the work, the work will do you.” Unless we step from time to time outside of the world we stand in, it becomes very difficult for us to draw an accurate map of its territory. We must temporarily remove ourselves from the house, from the town, from the country; or from the workplace, from the group, from the overly familiar repetition of routines which we’ve long since forgotten to think about.

Our first time doing anything is memorable for us, the subsequent iterations less so. One is never too old to experience a ‘first’, and the more firsts we do experience – whether it’s first day at school, first failure, first love, or first bereavement – the more equipped we become to deal with repeated ones. It’s unfortunately possible too that all of those things become dulled in our minds, and we become immune not just to joy but to sadness, not allowing ourselves to experience the full depths and breadths of life, whether they be good or bad. The result of over-repetition is stagnation.

This repetition and dulling of the senses, while providing an armour to the world, also has the effect of dulling our understanding of reality. When we’ve seen something before, we attach our prior memories to it. Not only do we not experience the thing in front of us, we also get a distorted image of it, a photocopy Not only do we not give it the attention it deserves, but we also distance ourselves from the world, one small step at a time, until none of it affects us.

It’s possible to go through life then, protected in some sense, though such preotective distortions tend to build up behind us like water rising behind a dam, and it is only then in times of great stress, when we need our senses and attention the most, that the dam bursts, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. Our internal map of reality has its limits revealed in sudden and catastrophic fashion. If you haven’t done the work.

The acute holistic novelty of being in a new place has the effect of giving you a shock to the senses. When everything is new, everything is remembered. Though in order to be remembered it must first be noticed. Your body becomes super- or hyper- aware and then everything becomes memorable. These moments of hyper-awareness open our senses up to the stimuli around us. Time even slows down – think of the classic image of a car-crash happening in what feels like slow-motion. But it’s possible to use this to direct ourselves. By exposing ourselves to manageable moments of novelty, with the awareness and stimulation they bring, it is possible to take control of how we react to things. We see things more clearly, learn things more deeply. And when a conscious choice is made in these situations, we take control of what we ‘remember’ from a situation.

Travel is not about where you go. It is not just about the external markers of unique cultures and natural landscapes. It is about experiencing novelty with an open mind and as much awareness as you can bring forth at that point in your life. Everything is novel to different people at different times, different things are noticed. One can return to the same place again and again and if they’ve been embracing the passing of life, with all its infinite potential for novel experiences in every corner of the world, they will return each evening to their home a different – and more internally ordered – person. And if someone travels far and wide for the purposes of ticking off lists or engaging in social media status contests, it is quite possible they will return home weary and bored and in greater chaos than before their departure, for they may never have truly engaged with the things outside of their map.

One can travel home by long back roads and see parts of the world they’d never known existed. Random trips away, walking different routes, long drives to nowhere, talking to strangers, cooking new recipes, or doing anything which is otherwise new and unusual to you. If one is looking to explore their minds, then no activity is too mundane if it is something you’re not used to doing. I’ve travelled this year to many parts of the west of Ireland where I’m from; places both new, and so familiar as to be part of the invisible lens with which I view the entire universe, and yet the passing of time and uncovering of my own psychological map brings my attention to things I feel like I’ve never seen, but have actually seen a thousand times before.

As I write this, it is forbidden to travel any great length in space at all. As a result, time stretches out ahead of us like an unending motorway running towards bleak clouds on the horizon. We have all been exposed to so much novelty this year – in the paradoxical form of suffocating routines and limiting of our spaces - as to constitute a backpack-toting lap of the earth. And ultimately, the effect of this will be to order our internal worlds with a greater tolerance for novelty than ever before.

We will not just tolerate great changes in the future, but we will come to crave the bits of chaos and spontaneous events that life throws at us, and maybe when the roads open up again, we will seek them out more than ever before. Our own land will lie ahead of us like a new country, our awareness and appreciation for it all sharpened through the internal journeys we’ve taken since we last saw it.

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