Stoicism: Day 3 – Travel and Escapism

I completed my third ice bath yesterday evening and this one felt colder than the other two. I think this was because I felt a little more tired than usual. The first evening I was pumped up to get this project going, so that helped. The second evening was moderately cold, but nothing unbearable. Yesterday, I was shivering for an hour after my bath and the bath itself felt colder than usual. Not sure why that is. Perhaps my mental resilience was not at its peak.

My boss called right after my ice bath to talk about something for work, and he must have thought I was really nervous or something because my teeth were chattering as I was talking to him on the phone. He sounded more sympathetic than usual when he asked me to make a few changes on a project I submitted to him.

My negative visualization exercise yesterday went well. I did it on my walk back from the gym in the morning. It was still dark, no one was out, and I had a good 15 minutes to be alone with my thoughts.  I thought about dying, and the inevitable death of my family members. But I also began thinking about how I could be living in a much worse place than I am now (I’m in DC).

My Travel/Escapist History

This past weekend I was in San Diego for a good friend’s wedding. As soon as I stepped out of the San Diego Airport, a blast of 73-degree warm air hit me and my mood improved by a factor of 10 billion.  It was awesome.

I lived in San Diego for a year right out of college. I loved San Diego, but I hated being in the Navy. I was able to get out of the Navy early (and didn’t have to pay back my scholarship which was awesome) so I left San Diego for Egypt. Why would I do that? I thought traveling the world would be the most exciting thing I could do at the time and that it would solve my quarter-life crisis.

Did Egypt give my life new meaning?

Nope.

It had its fun moments, but teaching was hard and I didn’t like it (probably because it was hard) and I forgot that living in a developing country has its downsides. I think I spent 6 weeks trying to switch internet providers there. It really makes you appreciate Comcast customer service.

I left after 6 months (in the middle of the Arab Spring) and spent a few weeks in Thailand. Thailand was fantastic, but the mosquitoes and heat got to me and I was ready to come back to the US.

I then returned home to live with my parents (woo-hoo!) in Lexington, MA at which point they drove me a crazy and I left to live in Portland, Oregon for six months with my girlfriend.

Again, Portland was fantastic but I still felt lost and the existential angst didn’t really go away. When Erica took off for grad school in Tel Aviv I moved back home to Lexington and then worked there for about 9 months, at which point my parents drove me to insanity and I move back to DC (where I went to college).

Now that I’m settled into my job I often fantasize about moving to another exotic location where I imagine my life will be wayyy better. Since my recent trip to San Diego, I’ve been fantasizing about moving there even though I lived there before and I wasn’t any happier the last time I was there!

Stoics vs. Lifestyle Design Bloggers

If I listen to travel bloggers and the lifestyle design gurus, they would encourage me to keep moving to new places, to try new things, and to repeat the process until I find something that sticks.

It really is a seductive message. Something not right in your life? Move somewhere tropical! While you’re at it, start a passive-income business so you can do whatever you want!

I know from experience that simply moving somewhere new doesn’t cure anything.

What I found super interesting is that Seneca came to the same conclusion I did thousands of years ago.

Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, 

           Lands and cities are left astern,  

           your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.

Even thousands of years ago people were traveling to “find themselves.”  I love the line “You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” And don’t think changing your soul is equivalent to today’s “finding yourself” or “follow your passion” advice. The Stoics advocated hard, disciplined, and systematic work to train your soul and your character.

I’m not the first one to think travel will fix everything, nor am I the first one to realize how poor of a solution it is. It’s very sobering, and a lot less fun to think about. It’s much easier to change your place than to fix your soul., but it is not a solution.

Suppose that someone has broken a leg or dislocated a joint: he does not take carriage or ship for other regions, but he calls in the physician to set the fractured limb, or to move it back to its proper place in the socket. What then? When the spirit is broken or wrenched in so many places, do you think that change of place can heal it? The complaint is too deep-seated to be cured by a journey. Travel does not make a physician or an orator; no art is acquired by merely living in a certain place.

It seems so obvious when Seneca writes about it. Of course you wouldn’t travel to fix a broken leg, you would see a doctor! Why would travel cure anything else.

Not only is travel not a solution to your problems, Seneca claims it can make it worse!

Besides, [travel] irritates us, through the wavering of a mind which is suffering from an acute attack of sickness; the very motion makes it more fitful and nervous. Hence the spots we had sought most eagerly we quit still more eagerly, like birds that flit and are off as soon as they have alighted.

This is true. I studied abroad in college and had a fantastic time. This was my first real exposure to travel. At the time, I was mentally sound. But as soon as I returned and I encountered my first real challenge (the Navy), my thoughts soon turned to travel as a potential solution, weakening my resolve to continue with…well…anything hard.

Where lies the truth, then? Can wisdom, the greatest of all the arts, be picked up on a journey? I assure you, travel as far as you like, you can never establish yourself beyond the reach of desire, beyond the reach of bad temper, or beyond the reach of fear; had it been so, the human race would long ago have banded together and made a pilgrimage to the spot. Such ills, as long as you carry with you their causes, will load you down and worry you to skin and bone in your wanderings over land and sea.

Do you wonder that it is of no use to run away from them? That from which you are running, is within you. Accordingly, reform your own self, get the burden off your own shoulders, and keep within safe limits the cravings which ought to be removed. Wipe out from your soul all trace of sin. If you would enjoy your travels, make healthy the companion of your travels.

Seneca had the wisdom to say what travel bloggers and lifestyle designers do not have the courage to say: fix yourself before you travel, don’t travel to fix yourself.

  • Alexandra Louis

    Amen!

  • Arushi

    I am on a Stoicism marathon on your blog and I am relating to it more, post by post and I have only made it to the 3rd post yet!
    This particular one motivated to comment here, because I have been going through the same rush of anxiety and feelings that I ought to run away from where I am now and only if I get somewhere new and everything will be solved. True escapism. On the bright side, I am suddenly motivated to give this a deeper thought as to find out what is it , internally, that has made me so complacent about my current situation.
    Thank you Dale – for this wonderful write up.

    • Hi Arushi,

      It’s a very tempting feeling to just quit your job and travel somewhere exotic. It very much appeals to our adventurous side, and the travel blogging community makes it easy to justify it.

      Unfortunately, it’s less a desire to travel, then it is to get away from whatever your current situation is.

      Glad this post could you help realize that maybe your desire to travel is driven by the negative feelings rather than positive aspirations.

      Let me know what you end up doing. I’d be curious to see if you find out the root cause of your angst. Once you get to my Catholic posts you might find doing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises helpful for dissecting your feelings.

      -Dale

  • Phoebe

    This post is just what I needed to read right now. I’m just a college sophomore but this advice holds true to me. I’ve been feeling weird and agitated whenever I pick up a book lately–and I usually love reading and learning–and I get lazy and read fan fiction instead. hahaha. Thank you for this.

    • I also have a hard time making myself do boring/difficult things. I haven’t found a proven system to overcome it yet, but Stoicism at least points out you cant run away from your problems.

      Thanks for commenting.