Perhaps Travel is Not the Key to Broader Horizons

Growing up in California in the 70s and 80s, one of the refrains that I occasionally heard was that travel outside your home will expand your horizons. But does it?

We all have our cultural idiosyncrasies that are a result of where we grew up and who we grew up with. The challenge, then, is what do we do with that. As a young person, I was very much a product of California, a state so vast and independent–almost as if it were its own country–that one could live a full and varied life and never once leave the state. (Some people live a crabbed and limited life and never once leave the state, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Anyway, I have family in New York and traveled a bit in high school, so I was not as parochial as some. But I had a lot to learn, and still do.

Which brings me back to my original point: does travel open doors to greater understanding? My gut reaction is yes, it does. It seems to me that once you see that there are different ways to achieve the same or similar results, you begin to understand that there is not (with some exceptions) one right way to do things.

And if there isn’t one right way to do things, that means that there are multiple ways of being that are just fine. With an open mind, one will see, at the very least, that one’s preferred (or accustomed) way of doing things may not be the best way.

Growing up, I was acquainted with a elderly couple, Frank and Helen Hitchens. The Hitchens were devout Christians and had spent a significant amount of time doing missionary work in other countries to evangelize the message of Jesus. They had spent time in Peru and later in Tunisia. There may be other countries that I am not aware of.

In my memory, the Hitchens were stodgy and dull, despite all of their worldly travels. This may be explained by the fact that they were old and I was young. But my grandparents were also old and did not seem nearly as stodgy and dull as the Hitchens.

Photo: Amitav Ghosh

I have a copy of a letter from the Hitchens that I recently obtained. My mother and I were sorting through some of her papers and we came across this letter, written to my parents in 1979 when the Hitchens were doing missionary work in Tunisia.

Most of the letter shows very little in the way of compassion for the Tunisians. Rather, it it strikes me as condescending and tone deaf. It belittles the Muslims for being impractical and bound by tradition. It asks us to be thankful that we are not camel herders and complains that there is no good sharp cheddar cheese to be had. It says with a regretful tone that all the newspapers in Tunis are in either French or Arabic, and the Hitchens cannot therefore read them.

It on the one hand says, disdainfully, that the Muslims can be “fiercely loyal” to their faith and on the other hand says that serving the Christian God is a “privilege” that is welcome despite hardship. It also seems reluctant to call Islam a religion.

And finally there’s this: “Frank just commented that sometimes he feels like [the apostle] Paul — in our rented apartment, a ‘prisoner’ of the Gospel….”

This makes me ask: why were they even there? Did Tunisia leave any impression on them, other than that they were glad to be Americans? How could their missionary work have been effective if they didn’t speak the language, and showed little interest in the Tunisian people’s lives?

So perhaps cross-cultural understanding is not automatic. As much as I’d like to think that stepping outside one’s American existence to learn something new will expand one’s horizons, maybe that’s an illusion.

Or at least debatable. Some argue that the saying that travel opens one’s mind is a false adage. “Travel does not automatically make you a better person,” says Travis Levius, a travel journalist and hospitality consultant. This appears to be true of Mr. and Mrs. Hitchens. I’m not saying that they weren’t good people, whatever that means in the long run. But their travel in the name of Jesus did not, evidently, make them more compassionate towards people of cultures that were different from their own.

True compassion transcends differences in culture, age, language, or religion. And compassion, I would argue, was one of the main teaching points of Jesus. But more on that some other time.

Epilogue: Mr. Hitchens claimed that he would not die before the Second Coming of Jesus. He died around 1987. Make of that what you will.

Things That Did Not Cause the Collapse of Society: A List

This week, a county school board in my area took a bold step in the direction of diversity, equity, inclusion, and frankly, justice. You may have heard the news.

Those opposed to this action have offered a variety of disconnected reasons that this was the wrong thing to do. They range from claims that the action will ruin our children (it won’t) or usurp parental rights (no more than other public education actions) to claims that the action will somehow interfere with their religious freedom (to discriminate). (Here’s just one example of hyperbolic reaction.)

I would bet money that privately, people also are thinking that it is another step in the downfall of society, another inch closer to the end of the world.

People opposed to positive social change–let’s call them conservatives–have argued for literally hundreds of years that steps taken to improve a pluralistic society and advance social justice will lead to the collapse of civilization. Which we know now is absurd. But conservatives still use that argument today anyway.

So I thought I would make a list off the top of my head of some of the things that over the years did not in fact cause social collapse (approximately in reverse chronological order):

  • the legalization of same-sex marriage
  • equal funding for women’s education
  • affirmative action
  • allowing women to enroll in historically men’s schools
  • access to contraceptives
  • the legalization of interracial marriages
  • the integration of public schools
  • the integration of the Army and Navy
  • giving women the right to vote
  • giving Blacks the right to vote
  • ending race-based enslavement of other people
  • removing the Church as an arm of the State
  • not doffing one’s hat or bowing to one’s “betters”
  • the scientific method

What does lead to a breakdown in social cohesion? Here a few things:

  • police brutality and a militarized State (ongoing)
  • lies and misinformation (ongoing)
  • environmental degradation (ongoing)
  • income inequality and entrenched poverty (ongoing)
  • unequal access to educational or economic opportunity (probably ongoing)

As usual, I am thinking of America as I write this. I realize that many other countries are at different stages of their journey toward a modern society and I wish them the best.

America can and ought to be better than we often are. I’m constantly amazed and saddened by how many Americans want to turn back the clock and erase so much of the hard-won progress that has been made over the centuries. At the same time, I understand that those people whose identity is threatened the most are the ones who will scream the loudest.

Which raises the question of who would create their identity around maintaining injustice and inequality? Think about it.

I, for one, think that regression to some imagined former “greatness” at the expense of general social improvement would be mistake.

P.S. It is good to remember that one’s personal opinions about how things “ought to be,” no matter how strongly held or deeply felt, are not “truths” that cannot be challenged. They are only opinions and can be heeded or dismissed as circumstances warrant.

Compassionate Inquiry on Wrongness

What do you call someone who privately knows they may be wrong about something but publicly advocates in favor of it, sometimes with intense fervor, because to admit they are wrong would be against their interests?

A weasel? An asshole? A hypocrite? A lost soul?


A lot of political cataclysm comes from people doubling down on things because of an unwillingness to say, “Maybe I was wrong.” Those actions affect their lives but also the lives of all the people they come in contact with and cause a lot of damage for everyone else.

Actor Joel Edgerton, in the Washington Post


For a long time, people kept many of their opinions to themselves, for a variety of reasons. But today, people’s lives are so we’ll documented, and we have more ways of learning fact than ever before in history, that now we have many examples of this kind of clinging to wrongness.

For instance, there are those who cling to the belief that the Earth is flat. There are those who hold deeply conservative religious views and who show no interest newly revealed truths. We have people who believe there is evidence that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

Is this wise? If not, why does it happen with alarming frequency?

Based on casual observation, it appears that such persons take psychic refuge in what they are believing. Their belief system–political, religious, views of human nature–provides value to them, often in the form of a coherent narrative to their lives. Which is what belief systems have done for tens of thousands of years, so it’s human. But more often than not, such beliefs can conflict with new ways to understand the world. People willing to adapt will learn to adjust. Others, even in the face of evidence, dig in their heels.

At that point, the humane thing to do is quietly but firmly inform them of their wrongness, be strong and ignore their continued attempts to assert their opinions, and be compassionate. Some of these people can be redeemed but many are so caught up in their belief system, sometimes with intense fervor, that they are essentially lost.

Interestingly, Jesus said much about hypocrites while he was teaching 2000 years ago, none of it good. Somewhere along the line, many people stopped listening to that teaching and instead doubled down on their out-of-touch beliefs. But also, Jesus–and the Buddha, and Hindu scriptures–teach compassion for the lost.

Wise teaching indeed.

The Road Trip

We were somewhere near the Tennessee-Virginia border in early April. Night was falling, and I was at the wheel of our minivan. We’d been driving for most of the day, having left Arkansas a little before noon.

My son Julian was in the passenger seat, queuing up music on his phone to play this new Canadian artist he’d recently discovered. I was trying not to lose sight of the other car in our caravan, the black Chevrolet with my other son and his girlfriend. The interstate was hilly here and with their taillights not working properly, it was easy to lose track of them.

Julian had driven until we switched drivers somewhere near Knoxville. We’d run through a variety of conversation topics, and the scenery rushing by outside had kept our attention. But with dusk and a change of drivers came a change in mood, as we continued to roll into the night.

The coronavirus pandemic had only recently become a reality, and it had been three weeks since I’d begun working from home every day.

As the music played, I asked him how community college was going, now that they’d moved classes online.

“I’m not going to class anymore,” he said. “And I don’t think I’m going to enroll in the fall.”

“Oh?” I said.

“Being online isn’t working for me,” he said. “And I think this coronavirus thing is only going to get worse.”

We listened to the music for a minute.

“You’ve been staying in your room a lot,” I said. “Some days I hardly see you.”

“I need my space,” he said.

It was hard to be optimistic about the coming months. Anything I could think to say would sound hollow. I nodded in agreement, but realized he couldn’t see that in the fading light.

“What’s your plan, then?” I said, throwing the topic back to him.

“I don’t have one,” he said. “What’s the use anyway? It feels like the whole world is a shit show right now. Everything I expected for this year isn’t going to happen.”

I glanced over at him. His dimly-lit face gazed out at the highway ahead while he got quiet again as the music played. He leaned forward to turn up the volume.

That night, I had no way of seeing just how bad it would get, both in the world and in Julian’s life. The weeks and months to come would be filled with awful news, the shutting down of normal life, the cancelling of so much, and Julian being fired from his job, retreating further from his mother and me, leaving the house to go smoking, getting drunk alone in his room late at night.

But we had a long way to go still until we could get home to relative comfort and some sleep.

To Be Read, and To Be Understood

Recently, I noticed a flurry of views on a post I wrote in January. The post was my reaction to an article in the Washington Post Magazine, an article about a writer, Cynthia McCabe, who was e-mailed by a man, a complete stranger, announcing his intention to commit suicide. The reasons this man gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.”

It was an article to which I had a visceral reaction, and I don’t mean a positive one.

I won’t summarize my reaction–you can read it for yourself–except to say that I felt McCabe, as the writer of the article, was missing the bigger picture. I also figured that she had said what she needed to on the subject and that the story would be laid to rest.

Not so.

I was curious about what was behind the uptick in views of my post, so I decided to find out. The recent increase in views, evidently, was provoked by the story reappearing on the radio program Snap Judgement. Don’t get me wrong, I like the program and have listened to it on several occasions. But I question the resurrection of the story in a new format, the motives behind it, and the approach taken by the producer of the piece, Julia DeWitt.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

The story, in my opinion, should have been that a person named Dennis Williams (aka Katry Rain) had dedicated a lifetime’s worth of energy and effort into a body of work that has been essentially ignored, and that this emptiness led him to end his life.

I’m not alone in this. One commenter on the NPR website had this to say about the handling of the story:

I found this story very troubling. Not because the writer committed suicide, but because the producer, Julia DeWitt, seemed to so completely fail to respect or understand his decision…. It doesn’t sound like Ms. DeWitt read a single thing he wrote beyond the letter. How is what he died for not the story here?

And a commenter on my January post said this:

My uneasiness with reading The Washington Post article…was [from] the writers’ callous tone (listing her course of options rather than expressing genuine sympathies, or her semi meta-judgmental of the publishing world, yet failing to recognize her part in it).

It appears that McCabe has not given any further thought on the matter.

In the radio show, however, Dara Horn–the one who called the incident an “emotional mugging”–says this:

You know, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a fair amount of success as a writer. And so perhaps it’s not fair for me to say this because perhaps I would feel differently if I weren’t as successful as I’ve been, but it would never occur to me that my writing was the most important thing that I had contributed to this world.

Interestingly, many writers–successful ones–have felt exactly what Williams felt, that their writing was vitally important to their lives. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “On the other hand, for a shy man it was nice to be somebody except oneself again: to be ‘the Author’….”

John Updike observed that the embodiment of the New Yorker, Eustace Tilley, “was like a god to me, the guardian of excellence; he weighed my mailed-in words and paid a grand or so for tales he liked. A thousand dollars then meant we could eat for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes. My life, my life with children, was a sluice that channeled gravelly water to my pan; by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I at the end of day might find a fleck of gold.”

Here’s the thing: why did DeWitt feel the need to re-warm this story for the radio? Was it because it really needed to be told again, that radio would provide something that print could not? I doubt it.

Yes, Dennis Williams has received a boost of attention from these events. But DeWitt seems to have no interest in Williams, and she admits that the people interviewed for the story don’t either. I rather think it was because it was a nifty story to tell, and DeWitt would get some feathers in her cap for doing it.

Williams was not looking for fame per se. He just wanted to be read, and also to be understood. DeWitt and McCabe and Horn clearly don’t understand.

[updated Jan. 31, 2017]