Lessons From A Passport

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As I mentioned in my trip recap post, the five months I spent traveling were filled with lessons (far more than just these next ten) — some of those lessons were new, some were relearned, some were unexpected, and some were hard won. The learning and relearning was simultaneously hard and beautiful. I took some losses along the way, but laughter, positivity, and certainly prayer, were the balm for my wounds. My experiences gave me so much to reflect on and writing them down allows me to process, remember, and be grateful for it all.

These lessons and ideas can hardly be described as new. Perhaps much of what I have to say here are truths we each come across in turn. But though we can learn from the mistakes and successes of others, nothing can replace living through those rich experiences ourselves. You can read and watch and listen to as many stories as you want about falling in love, or being a parent, or living with an illness but until the character in that story is you, that experience will never truly be yours. And what a loss that would be to not realize you are the hero of your own journey, the captain of your precious and powerful ship.

Travel places you into an unknown, unfamiliar territory that allows you to see what you are made of. Its roadmap offers both risk and reward. If we’re not making mistakes are we really making anything? If we’re not pausing to reflect on our choices and what they’ve taught us, how can we go forward and be better?

1. You need to spend time alone in order to finally face yourself.

We are connected to our relational circles and the world at large more than ever before. We can always stay in the herd, we can always find someone willing to give us cheap attention or validation, we can adopt harmful habits to numb our pain, we can avoid leaving the nest, we can go from living with siblings to roommates to spouses, and we can stay in codependent relationships. We can forever let the people and things in our life be the context that defines us and tells us who we are. On one hand, we need good people in our life to teach us and affirm us, but we also must periodically retreat and strip down. When you are alone, do you like the company you keep?

Spending time alone comes quite naturally to me. I’m an introvert, I value personal space, I am a creature of quiet habits, and to me, silence is indeed golden. Outside my fortress of solitude, I can get easily overwhelmed in environments with sensory overload, I find that conversations between two to four people are my sweet spot, and I enjoy listening more than speaking when in larger groups. Yet even with those quirks, I am also eager to spend quality time with people, to foster connection, to deepen relationships, to mediate or counsel, and to seek the preservation of harmony and stability. My virtues inevitably turn to vice when I lose sight of my limits. I can become overly concerned with observing the group and making room for others that I am blinded to my own needs, opinions, and priorities (Enneagram 9s, ya feel me). Or at my worst, I will avoid conflict, be stubborn or passive aggressive, and shut doors permanently on people out of self-preservation. Discovering these aspects of my personality has been a slow awakening. It’s as if each new experience becomes a chapter in the operator’s manual for my mind. It astonishes me to think that each person’s view of the world is unique because they’re taking it all in from a singular consciousness that is completely private to them until they choose to bring it forth. Everything comes down to perspective — understanding your own perspective, understanding another person’s perspective, and finding meaning in the common ground.

Growing in our self-awareness and self-knowledge is vital if we hope to master ourselves and construct a thoughtful, vibrant life. There are many opportunities we can choose that help move us in that direction. Admittedly, traveling solo is a rather spectacular one. Traveling in this way displaces you again and again and again. When the only constant is you, you can begin to lift the veil and scrutinize what’s beneath. You become the inspector of your own foundation and the necessary rebuilding can begin. You can take ownership of crafting a life you love.

“I’m finally coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am.” - Thomas Murton

2. Listen to and trust your gut.

I know… what an obvious one. And yet still, it’s clear only in hindsight to see the trouble I could have saved myself by listening to my gut. This lesson came up frequently in the planning aspects of my trip: where I went and for how long, how I got from one place to another, who I chose to accompany me, and what I spent my time and money on. Once we’ve explored enough through trial and error, it is wise to honor our individual preferences. I had to learn this (painfully) a few times during my five months of traveling, but I’m forever better for it.

I had my times of error, I had my times of poor choices. Over time though, it becomes easier to notice that mysterious extra sense. It pulls us in the right direction through some combination of confidence and desire. In practice this looked like: being okay with missing out when I knew I needed rest, saying no to invitations that I was hesitant about, paying more for convenience or safety, leaving a situation that didn’t feel right even though it was harder than staying, speaking up when I had reached my limits, starting a conversation with someone because it seemed right, and moving up my return flight when I knew that it was time to go home. There are things that you instinctively know without knowing how exactly you know them, and that is a tool that should not be ignored. Choose what you actually love, not what you think you should love. Choose what future-you would want for yourself, not what present-you is trying to rationalize in the moment.

3. Happiness should not be the goal of our lives.

“I just want them [swap in my son, daughter, partner, parent, friend, whoever] to be happy.” Whenever I hear people make a statement like this, I cannot help but be a little saddened and frustrated by it. Is happiness really the highest virtue we’re pursuing and wanting for ourselves and others? I want the people I love to be challenged, to be disciplined, to be liberated from their chains, to understand their weaknesses and harness their strengths, to be willing to sacrifice when life calls for it, to find purposeful work, to be moving on a path towards wisdom. I want the same for them that I want for myself. We should want more for people and demand more from people. We should call each other higher, working towards refinement with a genuine willingness and sincere effort.

My proudest, best moments are not simply when I’m happy or when things come easy. More often than not, they are greater moments of meaning and victory. There were days, sometimes weeks even, on this trip that were dark and difficult but I’m thankful for what those struggles taught me. Back in May, I wrote the following in one of my Instagram captions and it’s still how I feel: “Happiness is not an endless supply of good things happening to us, that’s for sure. I don’t know if happiness is even the right goal to be honest. What I am finding looks a lot more like growth, struggle, discomfort, uncertainty, pain, perseverance, disparity, accord, relief, beauty, kindness, and generosity — for all that I’m experiencing, I feel gratitude.” May we be grateful, active, generous, and kind participants in the lives we get to live.

4. Love your body like it’s the only one you have.

There is no avoiding it, travel (and budget travel, especially) is brutal on the body. Our routines, habits, and homes can be structured in a way that allow us to optimize for our health and provide us with stability. Living on the go means putting your body in a constant state of stress and always being on the lookout for how you can meet your basic needs in each new place. Nutrition, hygiene, quality sleep, accessibility to exercise, and general self care all become harder to navigate. Checking WebMD for a self-diagnosis while in a foreign country is an equally helpful and terrible thing. I’ll forgo the details here, but I can tell you that I returned home as a very unhealthy version of myself. I couldn’t ignore the slow decline I was experiencing as time went on. I missed cooking, I missed my chiropractor, I missed showering without shoes, and I was ready to reclaim the level of health I had prior to traveling.

We are complex, fragile beings and it’s common for us to get frustrated with our bodies and focus on what they are not. It’s easy to forget they are fighting to keep us alive — warding off germs, healing cuts, regulating breath, pumping blood, creating new cells...on and on, we live. After withstanding the physical demands of travel, I learned to love my body for its function. I began to think, to hell with what it looks like, I simply need to be able to climb that mountain, chase down that train, or make it through another travel day on no sleep. I now feel boundless gratitude for my body because it was the vessel that carried me for tens of thousands of miles around this planet and enabled me to experience all that I did. Vanity drives what we want our lives to look like. Health drives what we want our lives to feel like. And the latter is infinitely more valuable.

Isn’t it interesting to notice that no one is fully immune? Even the simple common cold chases down every person on earth at one point or another. While I’m not saying illness of any kind is good, I do think its presence offers us an important reminder. It demands that we pause and pay attention. It resharpens our senses after they’ve become dull. It grows our gratitude for times of good health and reminds us that breathing, walking, and waking up are not guaranteed. Outer beauty and the relentless appraisal of it is often one of the biggest barriers to loving our bodies — but beauty is not something to be contained in tiny little boxes, nor is it seeing and celebrating the same thing over and over again, despite society’s narrow definitions of it. We waste time feeling claustrophobic in our own skin, when we should feel most at home there instead. It is really the only coordinate on our journey that we will always inhabit. The worst thing we can do is to look at other people and wish ourselves away. We don’t owe the world beauty, we just owe ourselves love and care.

5. Disruptions can be roadblocks or learning opportunities.

My itinerary changed a dozen times. I ran out of money on an island with no ATMs and was stuck there for two more days. A trip to Milford Sound got cancelled because of snowy road conditions. I locked my keys inside my baggage. My credit card information was stolen and used fraudulently. I got debilitating sun poisoning and skin rashes that lasted for two weeks. An important package from home got held up in Spanish Customs and returned to the States only after I did. I walked 17 miles in Paris the day France won the World Cup because everything shut down and turned into insanity. Trains were cancelled. Buses were missed. Items were lost. Airbnbs were weird. Weather was unforgiving. For all the wonderful, helpful, generous, and kind people I encountered, I still met my fair share of insufferable, inconsiderate, obnoxious, and harsh people along the way.

What carries you through the unexpected? Acceptance. Patience. Composure. Creativity. Laughter. By that I mean, I would quite literally start laughing out loud in public places at the absurdity of my situations (this behavior was common towards the end of my trip especially). There were countless moments that posed questions I did not have answers to, and truly, the continual challenge was both half the battle and half the fun. Most things in life are fixable and even a toxic thing can be a teacher. In case it’s coming off like I handled everything gracefully, let me assure you that that’s not how things played out. But with practice, a steady, solution-oriented response became my default and I’m grateful for how travel helped develop that muscle.

6. It’s important to recognize your privilege.

We all find ourselves in a lottery of living, born in a body and birthplace that we have no say in. As we grow, we get to change things and edit our life how we wish, but our starting point still holds weight. Going out into the world as an educated, white woman while carrying a United States passport, having accumulated wealth in a valuable currency, and being a native English speaker automatically gave me enormous advantages.

I studied abroad in Germany my sophomore year and then interned at the international programs office during my final two years of university. The programs’ mission is to “provide students a life-changing international experience designed for intellectual, social, personal, and spiritual transformation.” It was all that and more. My time abroad in 2009 was naturally one of the most significant periods of my life and travel has been a priority for me ever since. Back then I visited seven countries in just over three months. This year I visited thirteen countries in five months. And would you believe me if I told you that I’m not done and I will do something similar in the future with a husband and kids? Because I believe it.

So then, where do I go from there? How do I respond to having these privileges? How do I not only feel gratitude for what I’ve been given, but how do I then show gratitude back to the world? Culture, lifestyle, and geography can limit your mindset. Travel allows us to move beyond, to move towards others, to close the distances between us. It is from this place further away from my starting self, that I am trying to now work from. I will spend my whole life seeking answers to these questions. I will let gratitude and generosity lead me.

7. We are responsible for our planet and we need to stop ruining it.

Now when I think of this beautiful planet, I have more places that come to mind when I shuffle through the inventory of my travel memories. I think about the highlands of Scotland, the mountain peaks of New Zealand, the beaches of Australia, and the endless coasts of Spain. I also think about the drastic recession of the glaciers of Iceland, the trash overflowing on the shores of Indonesia, the decay that time and traffic bring to the streets of Italy, and the swarms of tourists that flood into places with great consequence to those who call these spots home.

I love the lessons found in cities like Berlin and Copenhagen. The people there teach the world about efficient small-scale design, recycling and composting as an art form, smart utilization of resources, superb public transportation, bicycle culture, and communal living. Just as well, I love the lessons found in places like Vestmannaeyjar and Queenstown. The landscapes there teach the world about unspoiled beauty, the value of fresh air and clean water, ancient history, human smallness and impermanence, and nature’s power to humble every last one of us.

Like so many things in life, we cannot do what needs to be done alone. We care for our piece well, we remain conscious and connected to the whole.

8. Embrace minimalism. Quality over quantity.

Reader, can I just tell you that I am so tired of stuff? You too? I meannnn... we are inundated, surrounded, distracted, overwhelmed, and swollen with meaningless stuff. If I had been asked while I was away traveling to write out an exact list of my belongings at home, there is no way I could have recalled everything. Lesson being, when something isn’t in front of you demanding attention, turns out you’re not really all that concerned about it. You save time and energy. You use what you have. You discover how content you can be with less.

Yes, I like having more than three pairs of shoes now. Yes, I am stoked to not be doing laundry every week. Yes, it’s great to have a stocked medicine cabinet. My jeans, yoga mat, books, french press, and eyeshadow, among plenty of other things, are back in my life now. But living out of a backpack for five months and carrying all my belongings with me around the world certainly taught me how little I need. And that’s something I want to hold on to.

I decided I would be taking this trip about nine months before my actual departure date. During that time period, whenever I was considering a purchase I would ask myself: Will I be taking this with me on my trip? 99% of the time the answer was no, and that kept me from buying many things in the moment that I didn’t think twice about after the option was gone. Having more options does not guarantee making better choices. Having more things does not guarantee a full life. As I’m writing this, I’m four days away from moving to another state and I’ve been ditching, donating, sorting, selling, packing, and purging the contents of my life in order to whittle down my belongings to what will fit in my car. Losing stuff, gaining space...and it feels good.

9. Love is in the details.

That time when… I connected with a restaurant owner in Queenstown and we talked for 3 hours about faith after he had closed up shop for the evening. I met with pastors in Queenstown who accepted me instantly and offered timely counsel and comfort. I visited Hillsong in Sydney and was moved to tears during worship. I met Kate in Nicaragua and we reunited in Australia. I took a photo for a Balinese couple on their honeymoon and they became quick friends who offered to show me around their home in Ubud. Dear friends and family in Amurrio and San Sebastian invited me into their homes, showed me their favorite places, and prepared delicious, elaborate 2-hour long meals for us. I met incredible people in Seville and Lisbon, where we explored the wonders of tapas, flamenco, rooftops, and futbol together. I visited my old home in Heidelberg and reconnected with former professors who showed me that good and true things have a way of lasting. I connected instantly with a guy in Prague who was a refreshing reminder that good men are out there. I joined up with an alumni travel group from my alma mater in Edinburgh and it was the best conversation over the most amazing meal, which Pepperdine generously paid for. Friends from home made the effort to come visit me in Portugal and the UK. I met Jen in Australia and we reunited in England. A friend of a friend generously opened up her flat in London and was the most gracious host. The captain and crew on my flight home from Rome invited me to the front of the plane so we could swap travel stories and drink espresso.

And on and on and on the days and details were lived. I have a running Google doc that has 141 rows on it, one for each day I was traveling. I jotted down quick notes of what I did, where I ate, who I met that day, and the conversations that changed me. It feels surreal to read over it, but I love returning to the richness of what travel has brought.

Love is in the details. God is in the details. In all things He works. I see repeatedly, steadfastly, endlessly that love and God are one and the same.

10. We are made for the eternal.

The concept of home fascinates me. What is a home? Where is it? And how do we feel when there? A quick look in a dictionary tells me that home can be a place of origin, a person’s usual residence, or the place in which one's domestic affections are centered. I have places that check all these boxes, and yet there is something deep in me that does not feel at home no matter where I go.

Travel is a beautiful privilege, but one must be cautious of the constant pursuit of more, more, more of the world. You will never find the satisfaction you are searching for. The more I’ve seen, the more certain I am that what I’m ultimately seeking cannot be found. There is a constant restlessness, a desire for a future that looks different. We continue to hope for a world of peace, even though we’ve never known a world of peace. We have no proof that suggests it could ever be a reality. We continue to believe in love, even though experience teaches us that imperfect human relationships will always cost us. We have no assurance that human love will last. Yet we have always believed in these ideals, we hope for their existence, and the entire human race operates on some type of faith, knowingly or unknowingly.

In my restlessness, I find rest in the words of those who’ve come before. Together, we see the glimpses of glory and we wait patiently. In the present, we work to bring Heaven to earth.

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” - Romans 8:22-25

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” - C.S. Lewis