This is my third time in Uganda, but it’s the first time I’ve been completely transformed by my surroundings. The first two trips were very short, no more than a week. I saw everything I see today but with different eyes. What I previously perceived as reality was simply my individual view, based on personal history, experiences, fears, hopes, and beliefs. Coming to a place, for the first time, that is so starkly in contrast to what we know has a powerful impact on us. However, our initial interpretation of that place is largely false. Until we are able to shatter the kaleidoscope with which we view our new environment, we cannot have a true sense of the place – or of how we relate to that place. I realize now how foolish I was to think I knew anything about Uganda. My understanding of the world hadn’t yet reached a level at which I could comprehend something so complicated and new. Don’t get me wrong, I will never fully understand. I cannot imagine any of us will. But the thing about long-term travel is this – if you can do it, I truly believe there is no better way to find your place in the world. And I don’t mean geographically. Rather, I’m referring to finding purpose and meaning in life.
Sometimes it is as though our lives are living us. We continue in this way, doing what we feel we must to achieve whatever it is we are trying to achieve, and we lose all sense of control over this momentum. We find ourselves stuck in a mindless hamster wheel, and it’s not until we are faced with an extreme circumstance (tragedy, sickness, death, loss of a job, loss of a relationship) that we are able to stop the wheel and ask ourselves, “What am I doing with my life?” In that moment of clarity, people often make seemingly irrational decisions, abandoning the dependable, productive, “sane” routine which has defined them throughout their entire life. They replace the tried and true with hopes and dreams, doing whatever it takes. Things that had once seemed impossible – quitting a hated job, leaving a bad relationship, starting a business, sailing around the world – suddenly seem perfectly within reach. This is not to say that reaching for our hopes and dreams always turns out the way we would like. Failure is a very real possibility when we take a chance in life. But failure tends to lose it’s terrifying grip when we live the life we want to live. When we live someone else’s idea of what life should be, fear of failure equals fear of embarrassment, shame, and disappointing someone other than ourselves. When we live our own lives, despite what others say or think, there is only one person we let down if we fail. And that person is easy. Failure, mistakes, and bad experiences can even take on a positive light. The most interesting people I’ve met can sit and tell stories for hours. These stories aren’t fairy-tales with happy endings. They are full of missteps, mistakes, injuries, and accidents…failures. The difference is, the person telling the story doesn’t view the failures as something to be ashamed of. With every failure comes an invaluable life lesson which prepares the recipient for anything that lies ahead.
The good news is, we don’t have to wait for a stressful, difficult, painful time to realize what we really want to do with our lives. Stepping outside of our routine (and I don’t mean changing book club to Tuesdays or driving a different route to work) can be a very powerful way of rekindling the fire that burned brightly when we were still young, adventurous, and invincible. Traveling is one of the most effective ways to step outside of a routine…and long-term travel will produce the most profound transformation. However, it’s not easy for most people to just pick up and leave behind the lives they know for a few months or years. Even a few weeks can be difficult. As a parent, I think the greatest gift we can give our children is the encouragement to see the world. Recently, a 19 year old young woman arrived here, at the orphanage, to volunteer for several months. She just graduated from high school and is taking a gap year before starting college in the fall. Before coming to Uganda she worked on a farm in France, went to Morocco with friends she met while on the farm, and then spent several days in Istanbul, entirely on her own. She will continue on to Italy and Greece before returning home in August. I am both impressed and inspired by her fearlessness. This kind of solo travel is relatively uncommon for American youth. Yet this is the ideal time to embrace it. No student loans, mortgage, bills, family. Just a young person with no debt or baggage, and the journey of life is only beginning. Doesn’t it seem silly for a young adult to start that journey without even leaving her own backyard? The young woman visiting us is going to start college in the fall with a sense of clarity and direction which could not have existed without a year of travel, volunteering, and meeting so many diverse characters along the way. She will be emotionally ahead of her peers. Most importantly, however, she will set out to live her own life, not a life dictated to her by someone else. Classroom education serves an important purpose, but the practical experience derived from immersion in other cultures is the best way to figure out what we want to do with our lives. Considering many of us don’t figure this out until we are in our 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, or even older, I cannot imagine why every parent wouldn’t strive to give their children these tools early on in their lives. In my opinion, there is no greater plague on life in America than the complacency and numbness that come from living our lives to acquire material possessions and achieve a level of success measured by three things – those possessions, our physical appearance, and our adherence to society’s implied code of conduct. The knowledge that none of these goals can ever bring real happiness (we can never be rich enough, beautiful enough, or perfect enough) should be the only deterrent needed to point us in another direction, toward things that actually feed our soul and bring us real joy. But we are human. And humans are undeniably good at using distractions and addictions, and just about anything that feels good, to temporarily mask our fears. We apply a band-aid to our deep, infected, pustulating, mortal wounds and don’t think about them again until we wake up the next morning and realize the band-aid has bled through. Then we just put another band-aid on top of it and search for the next distraction. Eventually, we realize our ultimate distraction is the daily routine we cannot seem to escape. But it’s not that we can’t escape it. We just don’t want to leave it’s comfortable confines. We don’t know what’s on the other side…and that fills us with fear. We prefer numbness to fear. And so we continue in this way until some experience, usually a difficult or painful one, shifts our focus and makes us less fearful of the unknown.
We cannot all pick up, leave our jobs behind, and travel the world. However, we don’t have to remain on auto-pilot. Basically everything we do in life is based on our state of mind. If that state of mind isn’t working for you, you must change it.
Realize that the sense of security you take from everything around you is false. Your job, your house, your family, your routine. Nothing is permanent. Change is the only constant. Even if you manage to hold onto all of those things, their position in your life will likely change. What is unbelievably important today can become irrelevant, or even bad, tomorrow. Once you recognize that this sense of security is false, consider whether or not taking a chance is really that risky. For example, if you hate your job but are too afraid of what will happen if you make a change, is the risk of failing really worse than remaining in a job that makes you unhappy? What is the worst thing that can happen? You’ll end up in another job that makes you unhappy? Doesn’t sound like that big of a risk to me. You’ll undoubtedly learn something about yourself along the way. And you’ll find out that switching jobs might not guarantee happiness, but it’s also not as scary as you thought. It will give you the courage and knowledge to try and try again. And my guess is, you will eventually find what you’re looking for. This thought process can be applied to just about anything in life. Don’t remain stuck in an unhappy rut just because you’re afraid to make a change. Fear has an important purpose in our lives, but irrational fear of the unknown can prevent us from living the lives we want. Irrational fear can bring more pain and suffering than any failure ever could.
Encourage your children to be global citizens. They are growing up in a world very different from the one we grew up in. We need to shift our perspective on world travel and view it as a vital part of our children’s education. It will help prepare them for college, careers, and life in general. But it will do so much more than that. It will significantly improve their chances of living a life of meaning and passion, excitement and adventure. It will give them the tools to create the life they want, and I cannot imagine a more beautiful gift.