I used to consider traveling and its accompanying “find yourself” mantra overrated.
In the 2010 American romantic movie Eat Pray Love, the protagonist, a divorcee, escapes from her daily life in which she feels lost and confused, to “exotic” lands like India, where she finds inner peace and learns to love herself (as well as another man). I’ve always found the logic behind this movie problematic. The idea that one can simply run away from problems to lead a more carefree lifestyle, and return with everything somehow magically resolved is not how life works.
Not only is embarking on a literal journey of self-discovery only for the privileged few with the resources to travel in the first place, most of us will eventually have to return home to the same old struggles, environment and lifestyle. What happens then?
As a middle-class Singaporean, I’ve been blessed to have visited many countries, including the US, Hong Kong, and, most recently, Bhutan.
For 10 days, I traveled around the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as it’s known in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language. Bhutan, which was the country that coined the Gross Happiness Index, is known for being the happiest country in Asia. True to its title, for those 10 days I was the happiest I had ever been in a long time. I hiked up to mountaintop monasteries, had picnic lunches along cliff sides and riverbeds, spent hours soaking in the beautiful scenery, and even got to meet the King of Bhutan. It is one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in my 23 years on earth, and one which is still sinking in, three weeks after my return to Singapore.
Although I had initially resisted the idea of “finding myself” through travel, I found my trip to Bhutan changing me and my outlook on life.
Traveling can open your eyes
When we travel, we are suddenly divorced from the vicissitudes of daily life—our responsibilities and commitments, the chaos and noise, the everyday interactions and distractions. Traveling can give us the time, space and freedom to truly reflect on our lives—something which many of us rarely do, especially when we are so immersed in and preoccupied with the daily hustle and bustle of life.
On the long car rides from town to town, which could stretch up to six hours or more, I looked out the window at the passing mountains, streams, and cattle, contemplating about my life. There was no computer or cellphone screen to amuse me, no to-do list to occupy my thoughts. All I had was the nature outside my window and the thoughts inside my head, and I can say that those were my favorite moments of the trip: being able to reflect, write, and worship the Lord.
Traveling can also take us out of our comfort zones, both physically and metaphorically. In Bhutan, I was introduced to an entirely different lifestyle and philosophy. Learning about and adopting their culture for those 10 days changed my attitude towards nature, food, and even certain societal values.
Furthermore, traveling can strengthen your faith and draw you closer to God, while exposing you to the diversity of beliefs and ideologies around the world. In Bhutan, I learned much about Buddhism, the country’s state religion. I found some parallels between Buddhism and Christianity, which shed light on aspects of Christian principles from a different perspective. The idea of being selfless (John 15:12-14), of overcoming greed and ignorance (Luke 12:15, James 1:5), and of respecting all creation (Proverbs 12:10, Psalm 24:1)—from the smallest insect on the road to stray dogs sleeping on the streets—were just some takeaways.
The breathtaking beauty of God’s creation in Bhutan was a solid testament of His creativity, power, and sovereignty. Learning more about the Bhutanese and Buddhist way of life made me realise how there can be valuable truths and lessons found in other religions and societies.
Traveling to “lose” yourself
At the same time, traveling can also result in you “losing” yourself, if you’re not careful. It can become a distraction in our walk with God, especially when we do nothing other than indulge in satisfying activities such as mindless shopping and feasting. While doing these things can make us happy in the short run, it can also numb us to the better, deeper, spiritual nourishment for our souls.
Being in a foreign country can also tempt us to indulge in fleshly pleasures that we would otherwise avoid back home, just because “you only live once” (#YOLO). These temptations can be strong, especially when we are far from people who hold us accountable, or when we have not been spending time with God praying and reading His Word. For me, one struggle I faced when overseas was committing a specific time to reading and soaking in God’s Word. There were also many temptations that I struggled with, which—on hindsight—makes me wish I had confided in fellow sisters who could have prayed alongside me.
While we may not necessarily “find ourselves” when we travel, we may find some answers. For me, I discovered a different way of living—from treating the environment and animals around me more respectfully, to appreciating the intrinsic value of nature and spirituality—something which I believe we were created to do, but which we can often forget in our modern-day industrial capitalist societies.
But the biggest lesson I learned at the end of it was this: while traveling can offer one a momentary sense of abandonment and independence, it is only the truth of God that can set us free (John 8:32). Though traveling can impart to one feelings of serenity and calmness as one admires the beauty of creation, only the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, can guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). Though traveling can introduce to us new friends and even lead to the blossoming of relationships, only the love of God will ever be wholly fulfilling and eternal (Romans 8:37-39). God gives us more than what traveling can give to us, and of a deeper, more abiding nature—far more valuable and priceless than any plane ticket or hotel stay.
God created this entire world for His good pleasure and it is our privilege, as His creation, to be a witness to His handiwork—when we can afford to. But even if we can’t, we can most certainly witness His power and presence where we are, right now—it just takes extra effort to see familiar surroundings with fresh eyes.
Through my travels, I have learned much about the world around me. Of course, one’s experiences abroad will differ, depending on where one travels to, whom one travels with, and what one’s intentions are. Is it about discovering the world and people with an open heart, or to gratify more self-serving desires?
I had intended to write an article rubbishing the idea of “finding yourself”, but I came back from my trip with a much more nuanced and multidimensional picture of what traveling can offer. And I suppose that is the beauty of traveling—the opening of eyes, the finding of some answers, and maybe, just maybe, a step towards finding ourselves in God.
First published on 29 June 2016 on YMI.