What Do You See?

I’ve got travel on my mind this week. By the time this post is published, I’ll be in El Salvador. My thoughts have been taken over by packing lists and calculations for what time I need to be at the airport, and underneath all that there’s the simmering excitement of going somewhere.

I’m not going as a tourist—I’m going for a friend’s wedding—and it’s not even the first time I’ve been there. But any time I travel, it’s an opportunity to see the world from a different point of view, to let myself be pushed a little bit out of my comfort zone, to expand my understanding of the world—

—if I’m willing.

The Trap

The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.

G.K. Chesterton

There’s a widespread human tendency to try to squeeze what we see to the beliefs we already have.

Tourists fall into this error all the time. They arrive with preconceived notions about what a place is like, and no matter what evidence they see to the contrary, their beliefs remain unshaken.

If they view a country as “underdeveloped” or “backward,” they notice everything about the country that, in their minds, makes it “inferior” to their own country—while failing to notice everything beautiful and unique about its people and culture.

If they think of a country as “poor” and “disadvantaged,” they perceive everyone they meet as deprived or even in need of charity from a magnanimous foreigner—usually themselves.

Even if their beliefs seem positive—such as the belief that a country has a beautiful culture and worthwhile heritage—holding those beliefs too tightly can blind people to the reality of the country they’re in. Sure, the country has a wonderful tradition of folkloric dance and traditional music, but the kids still use smartphones and watch American shows, and everyone and their grandma is on Facebook.

Our Error

It’s funny how humans can wrap their mind around things and fit them into their version of reality.

Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

It’s not only tourists who fall into the trap of seeing only what confirms what they already believe.

You feel like everyone is judging you, and you perceive disapproval in their glances and tones—but in reality, the only person who disapproves of you is you.

You think someone’s lack of motivation means they’re lazy because if you behaved that way, it would be because of laziness—but you fail to realize that their lack of enthusiasm could be simply that this thing is not much of a priority for them as it is for you.

You believe, in short, that everyone around you thinks, feels, and sees the world the way you do—you assume the world works according to your preconceived ideas about it. And when you fail to understand that things very often aren’t the way you think they are, you remain ignorant of the opportunity to stretch the limits of your understanding, to look at things through different eyes, to gain insight you couldn’t have gained any other way.

The Solution

Travel brings wisdom only to the wise. It renders the ignorant more ignorant than ever.

Joe Abercrombie, Last Argument of Kings

The good news is that you don’t have to travel to challenge the way you look at the world. It’s not the going away that shows you a different way of seeing things—plenty of people travel to far-flung corners of the earth and come back relatively unchanged.

No, it’s not the travel that counts—it’s the willingness to listen, to consider that your assumptions might be wrong, to think about things from someone else’s point of view, to see.

Today, I have just one question for you, and I challenge you to answer honestly: What will you see today?

Today, are you going to see what you came to see?

Or are you willing to see what you see?

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.

Henry Miller

I’d love to hear about a time when your way of looking at the world was challenged. Tell me about it in the comments below!

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