By Troy Headrick
I want to preface this by saying that I’m an American who spent nearly two decades living outside his home country. I resided for two and a half years in Poland, four years in the United Arab Emirates, four years in Turkey, and seven in Egypt. During the expat period of my life, I also traveled, as a tourist, to around thirty or so countries. If my recollection is correct, I flew over the Atlantic Ocean more than forty times.
I’ve listed all this out not to brag but to make the point that I know something about the psychology of travel. People often associate traveling with vacations and “having fun,” and it certainly can be thought of in connection with those things, but it can be so much more than that. Travel can have profoundly positive psychological effects on those who do it. It can permanently change a person for the better if the sojourner brings the right frame of mind to the act of exploration. Because exploring the world can provide such wonderful benefits, I am going to advise everyone who is interested in promoting their mental health and overall well-being to look at travel as a “must do.”
I’ll never forget my first class in sociology in college. My professor was a Dr. Bruce Love. Of course, we all referred to him as “Doctor Love,” a cool moniker if ever there was one.
I bring Dr. Love up because he introduced me to a concept called “ethnocentrism,” something I’d never heard of until his class. As most of you undoubtedly know, ethnocentrism is judging other peoples and cultures by the yardstick of one’s own culture. Those who suffer—and “suffer” is definitely the right word—from ethnocentrism often think that the way things are done elsewhere are weird or inferior because they are different. In other words, ethnocentric people are unable to think outside the box of their own cultural norms. Ethnocentrism is closely associated with tribalism and is often the root cause of bigotry.
Travel is jarring and humbling. Jarring because travelers, especially if they haven’t traveled a lot, suddenly find themselves in a faraway place, surrounded by people who perhaps dress, speak, and act differently than they’re used to. All of this is a shock to the system. They are confronted with the fact that the world is really so much larger than was previously thought to be the case. If sojourners go into such experiences with open minds, they will find themselves pleasantly humbled by the experience of being strangers in strange lands. Travelers will undoubtedly find their frames of reference expanding. This expansion is what we normally refer to as “growth.” Travelers grow as they gain an awareness of their own tininess in the overall scheme of things. The gaining of such an awareness is amazingly sobering and humbling.
If we never see anything other than the places we were born and grew up, our understanding of the world remains as small as the physical space we’ve been occupying. To expand our minds, we must take our bodies elsewhere. We must leave familiar places and encounter the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the strange. Our thoughts and experiences and imaginations grow as our bodies are transported through space and time. We also learn to see ourselves as members of a world community when we finally meet our global brothers and sisters.
For all these reasons I advise everyone to travel, learn new languages, and move beyond what has always been the familiar and the comfortable.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.