You’re thinking about selling everything and traveling the world, aren’t you?
Those impulses often seem to go hand in hand. As Richard Todd put it in The Thing Itself, “there is a freedom in the kind of spending that leaves no trace, burdens us with nothing.” Ah, it’s one of those delicious sentences that makes so much sense when you read it. It feels like a changing of the guard, a backlash to the material acquisition that dominates our culture. That, or maybe it’s just the practical thing to do. After all, those things can’t look after themselves. Are we stuck with a choice of extremes?
Todd goes on to suggest that rather than being a materialistic society, we actually hate our things. I can see it now: we glare at their tawdry plastic shells and wish for them to degrade and fall apart, because we’re more addict than owner. We revel in the powerful act–the rush–of purchasing, not the weighty responsibility of ownership and maintenance. And the system of commerce built around this compulsion is more than happy to keep silent and support our habit. Some get rich, many go broke, and the vast remainder is content to operate inside the social contract. We might be a materialistic society, but we are bad materialists. We throw away so we can buy again. Good materialists look after their things, keep them in good repair, and value their long useful lives.
The quote above resonates with me and what must be hundreds of travelers I’ve met who’ve dumped all their worldly goods on the auction block (or street curb, as it may be) so they could travel the world. Over and over again, these folks speak of a lightness of being, of freedom, of agility, like a balloon drifting among clouds, no basket or hand to hold it down. They’ve reduced their possessions to what can fit in a couple of backpacks. They’ve rejected solace in things. Somewhere, Tyler Durden is grinning.
While Todd sees eating at restaurants as the primary expression of our culture’s fascination with a spending that leaves no trace, I immediately thought of travel. Is it not the ultimate kind of spending that burdens us with nothing? Put down the Venetian masks, please. Similarly, foodies focus on the transient, exchanging money for consumables marked only by empty containers and dirty cartons. Is it any coincidence that travelers and foodies are often one and the same? Are avid travelers, like those who’ve sold everything, beyond the yoke of materialism?
Meanwhile, as I pondered this train of thought, The New Inquiry published a provocative article on travel as collecting. It argued that we ultimately use the act of collection to defeat the impermanence of life. Interesting, I like that. And later on the author mentions that “chronicling, like acquisition, is a failed defense against impermanence.” We blog, upload Flickr albums, craft moving videos, purchase souvenirs, collect passport stamps – all these actions are the symbolic bronzing of the intangible, the materialization of experience. Our blogs are like shelves lined with firefly-filled jars. In this way, even those travelers dashing around the globe with oh-so-light packs seemingly show the stain of materialism.
So now I’m utterly conflicted in the middle of the crossroads. How was I to reconcile Todd’s insight that we seek unburdening transactions, which I interpret as travel here, and The New Inquiry’s assertion that traveling is collecting, the willful burdening of materialized experience by chronicling? Pass the aspirin please.
I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a materialist as I’ve described it above. In fact, I somewhat agree with Todd’s point that we hate our things (I think ‘resent’ is a better word). There’s a coldness and carelessness in the way we approach physical items today. How often have you replaced something over the most minor defect or detail? Once that coldness is in us, it spreads into other realms. Speed traveling from place to place, barely giving yourself a breath of the local air, is akin.
The underlying current seems to be about lack of respect and lack of appreciation. It’s about over-consumption.
These days I seem to see it everywhere I look: the heart-attack-on-standby Adam Richman in Man vs. Food, the unfathomable amount of oil we’ve cleaved to our livelihoods, the reeking mountains of waste that dot our countryside and foul our senses. People, we have a continent-sized island of floating trash in the Pacific that is pretty much beyond comprehension.
While chronicling our travels in blogs, scrapbooks, photo albums, or cheesy montages might not win the battle against impermanence, it is a deliberate and respectful treatment of the travel experience. It’s an exercise in memory design aimed at retaining cherished memories in high resolution, and I see everything right in that.
What should you do if you find yourself at this crossroads? Choosing the right path at an individual level is simple: slow down, question your behavior, and treat “items” with care and respect, least of all callous indifference. We’re not selling everything so I can travel. In fact, we’re not selling anything. But we are taking a hard look at new purchases, harder than we’ve ever taken before. Maybe the reason people feel so great when they sell all of their possessions is that they’ve unburdened themselves of those things they knew they shouldn’t have bought in the first place.
I think somewhere, Tyler Durden is riding delirious circles on his kid’s bike and laughing his approval.
Have you sold everything in preparation for your travels? Will you buy it all back when you return home? Which path will you choose at the crossroads?