Wherever you go there you are. It is impossible to leave oneself behind when traveling. But one thing I would really like to leave behind is my ego. Not the good self-defining core of who I am—but the false self, the pretend Jim, the protective shell. In that light, I have always both loved and hated this quote by writer and Catholic priest Richard Rohr:
I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then, I must watch my reaction to it. I have no other way of spotting both my denied shadow self and my idealized persona. (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, p. 128).
One good humiliation a day. One nudge to remind me that I am human. One push away from my ego. One time of taking off my mask. One moment where I face truth about who I am. I wish I was brave enough to face my shadow. I wish I had the courage to let go of my idealized persona.
When I let go of my ego I can face reality more clearly. I can be more curious. I find more real joy. When I am defending my ego I am blind to anything around me. When I am caught up in the false self I find it hard to really see others. And—if I can’t really see others—what good is travel?
Like many people, I have been extremely irritated (though not surprised) by President Trump’s decision to have his name printed on all the $1200 coronavirus stimulus checks coming to the citizens of this nation. It’s hard to comprehend this level of ego and self centeredness! Yet, as soon as I acknowledge that reality in Donald Trump, I immediately remember my own desperate need for affirmation and acknowledgement. I wish I were above it all, but I am not.
It is not that seeking affirmation is a bad thing. We all need and want that kind of love. My heart was warmed yesterday when I rediscovered an old paper one of my children had written in high school called “My Dad.” It was a project for an English class, practicing the structure of a certain kind of writing. As I read it I wondered, what did my child say about me? Will I find some love and appreciation here? Of course, love was there. The writing was kind and (I like to think) honest. Who doesn’t like it when a child talks about giving them “strong support” and “encouragement,” and being a person who can “laugh at himself?” Who doesn’t like being called a “great person?” My ego needs were filled for the day!
I get that we all need to be seen and affirmed. Maybe we even need that as a nation. Americans have brought great good into this world. But why do we have to believe we are exceptional? Why do we need to claim America as the greatest nation? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge both the good and the sinful that is present in our history? Isn’t it enough to be grateful for the many contributions the people of the United States have made to civilization, and to work like hell to undo the evil we have caused? Do we really need to project a false persona? What would it look like to have the courage to be humble? What would it look like to let go of our national ego?
When I travel, I find that it makes a difference whether I must constantly defend my false self or simply show up as I really am. I find that it makes a difference if I cling to American exceptionalism or if I am open to seeing the good and bad present in all human history and culture. This letting go of self, this openness, is what makes our journeys deep, and real, and transformative. It is what helps me see other people.
Spiritual Practice: Let Someone Else Take Center Stage
It is hard not to think about our own needs. It is just who we are. And when we travel, we think about those needs carefully. Will I have a comfortable bed? Will I get to my destination quickly enough? Will I enjoy the food?
It as if we think everything around us is put in place for our satisfaction. It is as if we are on stage just waiting for the applause from our captive audience. But what if we moved to the wings and let our needs take second place? Let a guide show us what she thinks is central to the history of her city. Watch a chef create his favorite dish. Ask a a local to take us on a path that she treasures. Hear the story of a neighborhood from someone who has lived there for many years. Pay the craftsperson a responsible amount for her wares. Help in a situation where someone might value our service.
There is little danger that we will forget our own needs. There is no possibility that our ego won’t have its say. But maybe we can move from behind the steering wheel to the back seat. Maybe we can trust another person’s insights. Maybe we can acknowledge someone else’s gifts and needs. Certainly, travel can change us. But letting someone else take center stage when we travel can open up whole new worlds.