Before I had kids, I loved to travel. Actually, I still love to travel. But as you can imagine, “travel” with three small children is a totally different experience than backpacking around Europe as a young adult. Since Clementine was born five years ago, we have been out of the country exactly one time. And with Freddy being just a year old right now, I’m guessing it will be another five years before we can return to the kind of traveling my husband and I have always enjoyed.
Sometimes, when I’m sitting at home on a dull afternoon, I start thinking of all the cool places I’m not going, and all the cool experiences I’m not having. Geothermal spas in Iceland? Not happening. Colorful temples in Southeast Asia? Nope. Croissants in Paris? Not for a long time. Inevitably I start feeling sorry for myself, and start trying to calculate just how long Freddy could sit still on a transatlantic flight. (Three minutes? Five?)
But as readers of this blog will know, thoughts like these are not just negative and unhealthy, they are the complete opposite of what Stoic philosophy recommends. Craving anything–whether it is money, fame, or intercontinental travel–leads to misery. I admit, traveling to new and interesting places does have many benefits: you see and learn so many things about the world, and you open up your mind to new perspectives and ways of understanding. But ultimately it’s just a preferred indifferent, like good health. It’s great to have it if you can; but if you can’t have it, then move on.
Stoicism teaches us that the best way to be happy is to not want what you can’t have. If you live virtuously, then you can be content anywhere, and you don’t need anything external (like travel) to make you happy. And if you’re not virtuous, or at least trying to be virtuous, then traveling won’t make you happy anyway. As Seneca reminds Lucilius,
“What is the point of crossing the sea and changing cities? If you want to escape the burdens that oppress you, you should not be somewhere else, but someone else.” (Letter 104)
Or again, in Letter 28,
“Do you think you are the only man this has happened to, and feel amazed as if this was a new experience, that after such prolonged travels and with such changes of scene you have not shaken off your sadness and depression? You should change your attitude, not your surroundings.”
Therein lies the rub. Travel, like everything external, will never lead to fulfillment if you’re not already in the right frame of mind. When I was in college, I traveled a lot, all over Europe. It was exciting and interesting, and I was very fortunate to have that opportunity. But somehow, I never really found what I was looking for. The beautiful places I visited never quite lived up to my expectations. I remember thinking at one point, “Ok, I’ve achieved my dreams. Now what?”
I’m guessing most people have had similar experiences. Maybe not with travel, but with achievement, social status, reputation, or a cool gadget. When you finally get it, you find that it doesn’t make you happy. As William Irvine notes in his Guide to the Good Life, “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable” (p. 66). That’s just old-school Stoic psychology. The Stoic remedy is to discipline your desires and make proper use of impressions.
Irvine recommends negative visualization to counter our urges to keep acquiring and doing new things. I’ve found that this works well for appreciating what I have. For instance, if I didn’t have children, I could travel more, have more money, have a better career. But I would be deprived of the joy of raising three wonderful little people. Unlike an expensive vacation, a child is a gift that keeps on giving. (And taking, of course, but you know what I mean.) My life would be impoverished without my kids.
In the specific case of not being able to travel, another invaluable reminder is this famous quote from Marcus Aurelius (which also appeared in the Stoic Week materials last week!):
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. But this is altogether un-philosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order. So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return. (Meditations, 4.3)
This one hits very close to home for me. I’m guilty of trying to escape from everyday life by imagining all the wonderful things I could do if I were somewhere else. But Marcus says that it’s possible to have a vacation anytime you want, just by creating the right environment in your mind. You don’t need to travel anywhere. If you have truly internalized the Stoic principle of virtue, then you can be happy right where you are. All you need to do is “dip into” your thoughts to renew yourself. Just remind yourself of your core beliefs, perhaps using some of the mental techniques or spiritual exercises that Marcus practiced. It’s better than any vacation, and you can do it anytime and anywhere.
In other words, we don’t need a vacation to refresh us and help us relax; we have internal resources to accomplish the same thing. And we don’t need exotic and expensive travel to change our perspective and help us see the world through new eyes; we just need “concise and fundamental principles” to open our eyes and spirits.
Whenever I finally do get to travel again, I hope I will be in the right frame of mind to truly enjoy it. For now, though, I can take a vacation inside my mind anytime I want. Not the kind of vacation where I imagine lying on a beach somewhere, but the kind where I remind myself that I already have everything I want. Even if the kids are cranky, the house is a mess, and I still have a million things to do, I can find a “peaceful and trouble-free retreat” in my own mind. I have great kids and a working knowledge of Stoic principles. Who could ask for anything more?