Travel Is Supposed to Be Hard Work

That’s what the word used to mean.

Photo by Simon English on Unsplash

The word “travel” has an interesting origin. It comes from the old English travailen, from the old French travail, meaning “work, labor, toil, suffering or painful effort, trouble; arduous journey”.

It can be traced further back to Latin roots, including the word tripaliare — “to torture”.

A long trip used to mean weeks, or months, of discomfort and danger, so it’s easy to see why the word has the history it does. Of course, with the invention of cars, trains, and airplanes, travel doesn’t have to mean suffering anymore. A modern definition is “to move or go from one place to another”.

It’s natural to take the path of least resistance, so why not go the easy way every time? Well, arduous journeys can come with certain side benefits:

  • Being forced to adapt to unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations can push us beyond our limitations, revealing capabilities we didn’t know we had.
  • Spending days and weeks with no objective but to move forward can put us in meditative states that produce valuable insights.
  • Suffering for a time can give us a reference point that makes our normal lifestyle feel easy by comparison, readjusting our comfort zone.

Our standards adapt quickly to technological advances. 200 years ago, an automobile on a paved road would have been a miraculously fast and comfortable way to travel across the country. Now, we travel thousands of miles in a few hours just by sitting in a soft chair — miles up in the atmosphere — and we complain about layovers, noisy passengers, and how far our seats recline!

One downside of air travel is that it removes the geographical and cultural context connecting our home to our destination. It’s like only reading the first and last chapters of a book. Without understanding the story in between, it’s easy to think of faraway people and places as “separate”, as though we’ve temporarily stepped into another dimension that will cease to exist when we get home.

Imagine how much more can be absorbed by turning a cross-country flight into a six-week bicycle trip, or riding a boat across the ocean rather than flying above it.

Of course, there are also the environmental considerations of burning fossil fuels just to get places more quickly.

This isn’t to say that airplanes are all bad — they’ve made a lot of good things possible — but maybe we still need to find a way to work hard if we want our travels to feel meaningful and beneficial:

  • If buying a plane ticket means months of careful budgeting and longer hours, you’ll be keenly aware of how special your flight is.
  • If flights are easy to afford but the purpose of your trip is humanitarian assistance, you’ll be stretched while you’re there and help make the world a better place.
  • If you’re traveling for pleasure, maybe you can choose to engage with locals, learn some of the language, and try to understand the complex cultural paradigms to expand your knowledge and empathy.

If “traveling” means being catered to at an exotic beachside resort for a week and taking arranged shuttles to and from the airport, a more accurate word for that activity might be vacationing. That has its value, too, but it seems to be in a different category of experience.

Maybe the way we think about travel is an analogy for the way we live our lives in general. If we’re waiting impatiently to get to a blissful destination, refusing to be present or find enjoyment inside today’s imperfect circumstances, how will we develop the capacity to appreciate the good things to come?

Maybe choosing to slow down and go somewhere the hard way can teach us how to find contentment in any stage of life.

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