Fear of a Small Planet

by Keith Savage · 33 comments

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Do you remember a time when it felt like you could be anything and do anything?

The world outside your doors was shot through with possibilities, and lands near and far seemed as exciting and mythical and fantastic as Mordor or Tatooine. The adventures you could have were as limitless as the world was exotic. Threads of hope, awe, excitement, and wonder wove into a tapestry often simply called childhood: that effervescent time before the choices of adolescence and adulthood shut off the lights and lock up the rooms filled with the precious talismans and worn totems of imagination and possibility.

I remember it well.

And those feelings rose up in me as I responded to some perceptive comments on my recent post about tourism’s slow death. I was agitated by my struggle to convey the idea behind the post. It covered a lot of ground – too much perhaps – and I didn’t go far enough in explaining what I meant. As I sat there staring at the comments I realized the truth was that I didn’t go far enough in understanding what I meant.

So Sarah and I talked (what else would I do?). The fact is I chafe at this search for authenticity. There is a key issue wrapped up in this feeling: encroaching monoculture, that somehow the markers of my American culture detract from the authenticity of foreign experiences abroad. Peeling back the next layer of this mental onion I see there is a conflict between feelings of familiarity and feelings of foreignness. I want that experience of foreignness and all its constituent parts: discomfort, excitement, anxiety, joy. Are these not the ingredients of being awake and alive?

So what if everything in the world was familiar? It’s here, in the Mariana Trench of my psyche, that I reach the origin of this whole shebang: Fear of a small planet.

Fear of a shrinking world of possibilities. Fear of omniscience. Fear of sleepwalking through life, of not living just killing time. It all gets very existential beyond that. Suffice to say that the conjunction of spreading monoculture with deeply integrated, globe-spanning technology and media further inflames this feeling of a shrinking planet. But there’s an essence of charlatanry in how it minimizes the unknown and expands the scope of personal power. Perhaps, in some subconscious way, these tools are meant to make the world feel smaller than it really is.

I know these fears are idle fears.

They grow in the absence of travel beyond known borders. The “size” of the world, whether big or small, is a matter of perception. The planet is only as small as I allow it to be. I can allow it to be written, drawn, defined, and packaged by the media. I can allow it to be as small as my state or my town or my street. Or, I can allow it to expand with every journey to a new place.

I remember that time of so-called “childhood” well because I still live within the hands of that clock. My imagination and wonder and awe want to soar into limitless expanses after too much time boxed up and moldering beneath the weight of years spent walking down florescent halls to threadbare meetings. It’s an unconscionable expression of conforming to the American Dream for a “dreamer,” as my brother described me in his best man speech. Ironic, isn’t it, that I’ve had this answer for so many years.

Traveling is a revivification of that awe and optimism and excitement too often left in the time of childhood. Travel, for me, is about enlarging the planet and increasing the scope of what I don’t know, about making me feel small, about filling the unknown space around me with the magic of possibility.

How does travel change the “size” of the world for you?

Listening to: Mogwai – Now You’re Taken

Original photo by Steve took it via Flickr under Creative Commons

CandiceNo Gravatar September 6, 2010 at 10:41 PM

If it weren’t for that fear, maybe we’d never get moving.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 7, 2010 at 9:08 AM

Exactly. Nicely put.

Ted NelsonNo Gravatar September 6, 2010 at 1:57 PM

This is an interesting question. I feel the nature of my feelings toward the world vary depending on the type of travel I am doing. I wrote a blog entry on my recent trip to Quetico Provincial Park called the immensity of Quetico. We were canoeing a 10 mile long lake in the middle of the wilderness and we did not see anyone for 4 days. This is just one lake among hundreds and the feeling of being one tiny canoe in that vast expanse of water, trees, and granite made the world seem immense.

On the other hand, when I travel to other countries mixing with people from other lands and cultures it makes the world appear small. When you learn that people in Thailand have the same fears, hopes, wants as you despite the many differences in culture then the world does not seem as large as when I am in a solitary canoe in the middle of a Canadian lake.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 7, 2010 at 9:27 AM

Ultimately, your experiences back up my conclusion. The world is malleable and our perception of it defines its size. Thanks for sharing these examples, Ted.

Christy -Ordinary TravelerNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 7:09 PM

I think it’s all a matter of how you want to look at it. Do you want the world to feel small because you like the idea that everybody is connected? That might be comforting for some people. Or does the feeling of living in a small world make you feel claustrophobic?

Travel has personally always changed my outlook by giving me the feeling that the world is large, and that for me, is comforting. After I return home from a trip, I find myself in awe of my surroundings again. Everything seems new and I notice things in my neighborhood that I have never paid attention to before. I realize there is so much in my backyard (meaning a 15 to 20 mile radius from where I live), and so much to explore. Which makes me realize that in my lifetime I will probably never visit 1/4 of the places I want to see. And that gives me the impression that the world is large šŸ™‚

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 7, 2010 at 9:24 AM

Christy – I like the questions you pose. That’s a helpful way to think about travel. Love this optimistic (to me) comment. Thanks.

Phil PaolettaNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 12:42 PM

Raam, these are good thought exercises! Gray, you mention the possibility of a seasoned traveler becoming disenchanted. I think this can happen, but I don’t think it has to. Henry David Thoreau spent hours sitting in his door frame looking outside. He more or less watched the same scene every day. Sound boring? He was absolutely enthralled by this. I love to travel. I think that travel, like psychedelic drugs, is a great conduit for experiencing a level of wonder that most people don’t know exists. At the same time, like Raam said, I’d like to think that I can take a walk I’ve taken many times before, in a familiar neighborhood, in a familiar city, and find wonder in that as well.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 7, 2010 at 9:23 AM

Now Phil, this is the second time you’ve compared travel to psychedelic drugs in one comment stream. I must hear more! šŸ™‚

Phil PaolettaNo Gravatar September 7, 2010 at 12:07 PM

Haha that’s because I travel with a host of schedule 1 drugs at all times. For real though, I think psychedelics are unfairly stigmatized and I recommend them to people if only for the fact that it allows them to see that it is possible to experience the world in unimaginable, astonishing ways.

EricaNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 11:09 AM

I can empathize with this post so well. I just returned from a relatively short trip to Peru and was disturbed to learn that there are 25 Starbucks in Lima. I was shocked. A sociology professor of mine called this the McDonaldization of the world, and it’s tragic for those who view this is a death of authentic culture, who lament the death of terra incognita. Are there no unthouched places, nothing left to discover?

For me, I’ve found reassurance that the planet is still large and diverse in focusing my travels on meeting people, on talking to others as much as possible and not to other Americans or Europeans (unless I’m in Europe), but the people who inhabit and embody the place I am trying to learn.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 7, 2010 at 9:21 AM

Hi Erica. I hear echoes of ways of thinking that I’m trying to outgrow in your comment. I completely understand where you are coming from and I think the best way to treat those Starbucks is as obstacles to be seen around. The world is the way the world is. I’ve been fighting for an image of the world that only exists in media or ages past or the imagination. We need to accept it for what it is now.

I agree with you that meeting people is the right track. I will try not to shut out anyone in my travels based on where they are from. While I again understand the motivation for that, I think it will only be detrimental in the long run.

GrayNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 10:56 AM

Funny you should write this, because I was just thinking last night of that question “Why do I travel?” and concluded that one of the reasons is that otherwise, my world is too small, and I start to feel like I’m trapped in a birdcage. I keep venturing out to remind myself the rest of the world is still there, it’s still vast, there are still plenty of places for me to explore and expand to as I feel like it. I do wonder if RTW travelers who have been everywhere and seen everything start to feel that it’s all the same–and then do they feel as though all of planet Earth is too small? Or is it, as you say, just a matter of our perception/attitude?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 10:58 PM

I’d also like to hear RTW travelers weigh in on those questions. I’m certainly in no position at this point to answer them. Sounds like we approach travel with a similar motivation.

AndiNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 9:12 AM

Hmmm, I kinda like the feeling that the world is small when I travel…makes me feel connected to people of ALL cultures. Just yesterday I became friends with someone on FB whom I had met through blogging and she lives on the other side of the world. Anyway, she sent me a message quickly saying how do you know this other person, as we had a friend in common. So crazy!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 10:55 PM

Hey Andi, maybe your point of view gets at what Christy mentions below. Do you want the world to feel smaller, more connected?

Raam DevNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 8:36 AM

When I was little I used to love watching ants do their thing on the ground: collecting stuff, walking around in seemingly aimless directions, discovering obstacles that could not be moved, etc. I used to love putting myself in their shoes and seeing the world from their perspective… what a great desert that sandpile is! Small stones look like giant boulders, patches of trees were great jungles, small streams were raging rivers!

Somehow, all that time I spent watching the ants really exercised my sense of perception. Now I can walk down a familiar street and realize that I’m standing around thousands of spots on Earth where I’ve never once laid eyes, let alone set foot. Sure, I may have walked past that park, but have I seen what the world looks like from all the different areas? What if I can see the top of a faraway building by standing on that hill over there?

Similar to what Phil said in an earlier comment, I think it’s the way we learn to filter out the non-essential in a world where we need to constantly be focused on what’s important. We slowly lose the ability to see the grandeur of the world around us and we have trouble recognizing how tiny we really are.

Whenever I’m feeling like the world, or even the room I’m sitting in, is getting small, I just think back to those ants. If I were as small as them, how big would the world be? How many places could they go that I’ve never even looked at, let alone set foot or placed my hand?

To go the other direction and make the world feel smaller and my problems insignificant, I use the exercise of placing myself far outside our galaxy and looking around at the billions of stars and solar systems. Our planet is just one of millions, and our small population on Earth is likely only a drop of water in the sea of life that exists in the universe.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 7, 2010 at 9:10 AM

I think we’re hard-wired for survival to filter out the non-essential data coming into our senses. That’s great for survival, but it really sucks from an experiencing the world point of view.

Interesting ideas, Raam. I can see that you are a visual person.

KenNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 6:36 AM

Great post, Keith. I certainly agree with the ability of travel and foreign cultures to revive our sense of wonder and excitement. It even works for us old gits.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 10:46 PM

It’s a very hopeful thing to know, that it works for old gits, too, I mean. šŸ™‚

Phil PaolettaNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 7:20 PM

Hi Keith, I just discovered your site. Brilliant writing. Not to get too heady on the topic, but this fits well with Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception.” Don’t know if you’ve read that or not. Inspired by mescaline trips, he more or less concludes that modern life has forced us to filter out much of what we could be experiencing. We only take in the sensory information we need to function in a complex society. Too much wonder and we would not be as productive, his thinking goes. This lends itself to monoculture. Interestingly, travel can often act just like a psychedelic drug, opening the floodgates of experience, or as Huxley would say, shattering the brain’s “reducing valve.” And I would agree about travel’s enlarging effect – it’s something I’m very thankful for.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 10:42 PM

Hi Phil, I love seeing new faces here (or the internet equivalent). I have not read Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” but it sounds right up my alley. I’ve never tried any psychedelic drugs but I never regretted that until you described them like traveling. All these wasted years! I suppose that’s why it’s called “tripping.”

kishanNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 12:39 PM

This is really surprisingly for me that people said the world become going to be small and smaller. But i think it is not true, if u wanna real experience about the world getting smaller then go for a long journey or long travel. I always like to travel actually traveling is my hobby. I always plan to travel yearly once. The world is not enough but our life is so short. I think, the earth is beautiful creation of God that we human called as World. Why the people fear from the siring the planet. World is very good gift from God to human so enjoy this very much beautiful gift. This is really nice blog and very much nice post.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 1:58 PM

Hi Kishan – that’s a nice way to look at things. Thanks for reading!

AudreyNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 11:44 AM

While many people talk about the world getting smaller, more interconnected and more similar, I feel that travel has shown me that the world is indeed a big and diverse place. Sure, big cities do start to look more similar with multinational companies, shops, restaurants, etc. But, with travel you realize that even when things look the same, there’s usually a local twist and the fun is discovering these differences.

Travel and being in new environments allows you to become a child again and not only question things in your head, but to have the gumption to ask “why? why? why?” There are endless opportunities learning and exploration.

I’m excited for your upcoming trip to Salta and hearing how you enjoy exploring this unique area of Argentina.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 1:56 PM

Your experience is ultimately where I came to along this line of thought. I think it’s a positive place. Perhaps if you’re traveling fast it might seem like the world is small and familiar. Traveling slowly allows you to pull back the layers – and to see just how many layers there are.

I’m excited to, Audrey, especially after reading all the great posts about the region on your site and others’!

EarlNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 10:54 AM

I find that I am always trying to block out this feeling of a small planet. Usually, I try to do so by avoiding making any plans while I travel and making only last minute decisions. I even try to avoid learning about a country or city before I travel there. And while this might sound odd, I only do so in order to ensure that as much of my experience is as foreign as possible, as that is what I crave.

I’ve found that not knowing where I’ll be next week helps me maintain that sense of awe when I finally do end up somewhere new. This way, no matter what I discover when I arrive somewhere, even if it is familiar to me, I had no expectations or previous knowledge and am able to still observe my surroundings as a child would.

I’m not sure if that came out very clearly, but as you mentioned, thoughts about a topic such as this can be difficult to express!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 1:47 PM

Hi Earl – You’ve done a nice job of clearly explaining your thoughts.

So you’re really actively fighting this thought. How often are you on the road? I’m trying to understand if this fear just grows in absence of travel.

EarlNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 2:06 PM

I’m traveling or at least living overseas 11 months out of the year and it’s been that way for the past 11 years for the most part. For me, I do see the world getting smaller all the time, as I return to places I’d once been only to find that that the local street vendors I once bought food from are now working at McDonald’s in the brand new shopping mall. And of course, it’s difficult to accept.

However, at the same time, all of this traveling has helped me define the experiences that I wish to pursue while on the road and so it is much easier for me to avoid the familiar now that I’ve spent so long trying to remain in the foreign.

And I’m not sure how much of a role the absence of travel plays in growing this fear, as with constant travel in general, a person is forced to observe first-hand every single day the changes taking place. As I move from country to country, I am ‘lucky’ enough to witness the building of another Walmart in another place where I never thought a Walmart would exist!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 3, 2010 at 10:38 PM

Earl, I can see this “shrinking” of the world bothers you. Your description of it bothers me too. Obviously you’ve learned to cope with it, but there are some good strategies and changes in perspective in the comments here.

KelseyNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 10:49 AM

For me, travel makes the world bigger, not smaller. When I’m abroad for long periods of time, I am acutely aware that I am “somewhere else”. I love the feeling of being on the other side of the globe, far away from anything familiar. Even when I make nests for myself in other parts of the globe (such as when I used to be an expat), I still feel like I’m living halfway around the world, and that feeling all by itself makes me feel like life is a constant adventure. It’s why I travel.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 2, 2010 at 1:44 PM

It’s nice to hear some support for this line of thought. I think I’m pretty much the same way – it’s just been too long since I’ve abroad! Idle fears, idle fears.

Thanks Kelsey!

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