Boomerang Travel

Contrary to what you might think, “boomerang travel” is not a phrase to describe a trip to Australia. (I haven’t been to that country—though I would love to visit.) Boomerang travel is a phrase I am adapting from Kate Bowler—historian, theologian, and author of a memoir entitled, Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved). Speaking last year at a conference called “Evolving Faith,” she talked about something she called “boomerang theology.” Listen to a little of her reflection on how people are moving through these pandemic times we live in:

[…] you’re going to hear it everywhere where some inspirational figure on an Instagram is going to be telling you that “isn’t this just really a reset button?” and “isn’t this an opportunity for you to spend more time with your kids?” And, “if I’ve really, really just been hoping for this, maybe this is the moment where God’s just calling me back to a kind of intentionality.” And so all of a sudden this global tragedy is now pulled into an overly causal tight framework in which you have to learn the lesson or else you’re not getting it.

And I think that the secret hope from them is that if they learn the lesson, they get to go back. They get to magically go back to before, where that is so tempting and so wonderfully delusional that we have these sort of Wizard of Oz beliefs that if you just say the words, if you just tap your shoes, you get to go home and there is no going home from this, unfortunately. But this temptation to move into boomerang thought, lets us try to imagine that that is within our grasp (Kate Bowler at Evolving Faith 2020, October 2, 2020).

A full understanding of her idea requires listening to her whole presentation. Here though, I am picking up on her suggestion that many of us seem to embrace the myth that if we go through this difficult time of pandemic (or any difficulty) and learn our lessons, we “get to go back.” The boomerang returns to the place from where it was launched. If we move through suffering correctly, everything will be OK. If we reset in just the right way, if we really “get it,” if we figure out the reason for our suffering—everything will go back to normal. I don’t believe this idea at all—and neither does Kate Bowler. There is no returning to normal. There is no new normal.

Here is how I apply this idea to travel. For me, boomerang travel is the idea that we can go new places, meet a variety of people, see amazing sights, hear profound stories, learn about other cultures and lands—and not be changed. I actually do think boomerang travel is possible—though not desirable. You can sleep in hotels that look just the ones in your home town, eat food that one can get at any restaurant in your neighborhood, only talk to people who speak your language, and never venture to any place that asks you to get out of your comfort zone. If that is the way we travel, I suspect we can come back unchanged and boomerang back to the same place in life from which we started. 

Though it is tempting, that is not the way I want to travel. That is not the way I want to live life. I don’t want the only change I experience to be a few extra photos on my iPhone. I don’t want the only transformation I undergo to be adding an inch or two to my waistline. I don’t want my memories to be limited to how many places I have checked off a bucket list. I want to be challenged. I want to change.

That being said, I do want to come home. I need a place of return and safety. But I want to come home different, renewed, perhaps tired, but more in love with life. T.S. Elliot offers a similar thought in his poem “Little Gidding“:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

We shall not cease from exploration. I don’t want to stop exploring. I don’t ever want to stop traveling (even if someday—as it is now—I am only relegated to travel limited by printed words, video screens, and stories remembered and told). Boomerang travel means walling ourselves off from change and transformation. The travel I want is the kind that when I return, I am so changed that I “know the place for the first time.” I see my world with new eyes. Though I may feel like I am returning to the same place, I know that nothing—not even home—can ever be the same. 

May you find the deep transformation that travel can bring.

Spiritual Practice: Let Your Pain Go Unexplained

All of us experience pain. All of us seek ways to avoid it. When we are in the midst of it we would do anything to get out of it. When we can’t get out of it, we spend hours trying to explain it. But I wonder, do we need to explain it? Does pain really need to teach us something? Is there always a cause and effect? Does it have a logical source? Could it be that sometimes pain just “is?” Could it be that (for no reason we can explain) life is difficult? (For an extended reflection on the human response to suffering in theology and story you might read the Book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures, especially Job’s response to God: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job 42:3)

I am not saying that there is no explanation for pain, but that perhaps we 21st Century westerners are too quick to find a reason for, rather than really notice our pain. I am not saying we should ignore our pain or avoid seeking relief. But I wonder if in too quickly trying to return to normal, in feverishly working to make sense out of our pain, in trying to boomerang back to where we started—we miss something very important.

Of course, I recognize I say all these things as a person who has not suffered the excruciating pain of the many who face war, violence, oppression and extreme illness. Perhaps all my questions just go out the window when this kind of obvious and overwhelming trauma happens. Perhaps all a person can do then is to escape the brutality that weighs them down, to alleviate things as quickly as possible.

But for some types of pain, there is an important practice. Notice the pain. Name it. Resist explaining it. And allow that recognition to stand as a welcome to all that comes to you in life—joy and pain and wonder and hope and frustration and fear and courage and loneliness and exhaustion and exhilaration. In all this, there may not be a lesson to be learned, but there may be a fullness of life to embrace.

6 thoughts on “Boomerang Travel

  1. This was such an important post I will return to it again. The book of Job was recommend to me by one of our wise prophetic friends a few years ago. It is perplexing and timeless…..besides exemplifying human suffering, it is a great lesson on what not to do as a caring friend. I want to explain my loss and suffering in order to avoid future pain, as if I can control what cannot be controlled. With humility, I lay down my quest for answers and pause, as you suggest, to notice.

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  2. Jim, thanks for bringing up Kate Bowler. As a three time cancer survivor, I latched on to her memoir. Regarding travel, I think it can either reinforce existing stereotypes or open our eyes. Similar to the impact of diplomacy, what if more people traveled with open hearts and minds? Surely, our world would benefit through greater understanding and compassion.

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    1. Paul, her memoir is one of the best books I have read over the past few years. She’s quite an insightful person, with a deeply authentic faith.

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