Choosing to Travel on Purpose

Sufi dancer, Istanbul, Turkey
You can experience a dervish-whirling session as mere entertainment — or, by learning a little of the tradition's rich symbolism, a moving encounter with someone connecting with the divine.


Ideally, travel broadens our perspectives personally, culturally, and politically. Suddenly, the palette with which we paint the story of our lives has more colors. We realize there are exciting options to the social and community norms that our less traveled neighbors may never consider. Imagine not knowing you could eat "ethnic." Imagine suddenly realizing there were different genres of music. Imagine you loved books and one day the librarian mentioned there was an upstairs.

But you can only reap these rewards of travel if you're open to them. Watching a dervish whirl can be a cruise-ship entertainment option…or a spiritual awakening. You can travel to relax and have fun. You can travel to learn and broaden your perspective. Or, best of all, you can do both at once. Make a decision that on any trip you take, you'll make a point to be open to new experiences, seek options that get you out of your comfort zones, and be a cultural chameleon — trying on new ways of looking at things and striving to become a "temporary local."

Assuming they want to learn, both monks and hedonists can stretch their perspectives through travel. While your choice of destination has a huge impact on the potential for learning, you don't need to visit refugee camps to gain political insight. With the right approach, meeting people over beer in an Irish pub, while hiking Himalayan ridges, or sharing a hookah in Cairo can all connect you more thoughtfully with our world.

My best vacations have been both fun and intensely educational. Seeing how smart people overseas come up with fresh new solutions to the same old problems makes me more humble, open to creative solutions, and ready to question traditional ways of thinking. We understand how our worldview is both shaped and limited by our family, friends, media, and cultural environment. We become more able to respectfully coexist with people with different "norms" and values.

Travel challenges truths we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given. Leaving home, we learn other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room.

Traveling in Bulgaria, you learn that shaking your head "no" means yes, and giving an affirmative nod can mean no. In restaurants in France, many travelers, initially upset that "you can't even get the bill," learn that slow service is respectful service — you've got the table all night…please take your time. And, learning how Atatürk heroically and almost single-handedly pulled Turkey out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world in the 1920s explains why today's Turks are quick to see his features in passing clouds.

Traveling thoughtfully, we are inspired by the accomplishments of other people, communities, and nations. And getting away from our home turf and looking back at America from a distant vantage point, we see ourselves as others see us — an enlightening if not always flattering view.