What we talk about when we talk about finding ourselves

cartoon by Xiaoran Shi.

cartoon by Xiaoran Shi

We often deal in irony when we don’t want to be seen as caring too much about something. Beneath the obvious aloofness within people’s questions about my motivations when travelling, or other similar conversations I have overheard, lies a fascination with the idea of finding oneself, of travelling as a time for self-discovery and epiphanies.

The standard version goes like this. Upon some kind of whim, or just a sluggish feeling that the daily drag in our familiar environment isn’t getting us anywhere, we catch a plane to a picturesque or otherwise alluring faraway place. While there, we drink, we wander around, we meet some really cool people, and discover a few things, or perhaps many things, that really resonate with us. These outward reflections of our inner world, with its refined but unappreciated tastes, its diverse influences and its irrepressible desires, remind us of how awesome we are and how much of human experience we encompass. We come back feeling like we have found ourselves.

As illustrated in the comic above, in every such journey there is already an “I” involved, an inner world threatening to break out, which can journey outwards but will always return to, and find, itself (or some form thereof). What the standard version obscures is the relationship between the “I” that finds and the “I” that is found. What form does this relationship take? For one, the whole idea of finding yourself evokes some kind of mystical uncertainty, a drive towards a goal that is always pulling you towards it yet always elusive. Or else it implies that we are at a point where, due to some trauma or loss, we have lost ourselves. I think the answer lies somewhere between the two.

I think the world, even at home, is always a little bit traumatic, a little bit foreign, and we never quite figure out the distance at which we want to hold it from us. In light of this, the way to truly enjoy life is to play with this distance- to immerse ourselves in the world, then re-establish distance for a while, only to fall in again, and in this way more truly discover its tumultuous landscape. In doing so, the boundaries between ourselves and the world become blurred and we find ourselves continually questioning who we are. In other words, we lose ourselves.

And here lies the real reason why travel is so important to so many of us (unless, of course you already feel lost and want to find your anchor somewhere else) – it gives us a chance to lose ourselves. On the winding road, we discover true, ineffable otherness, otherness we haven’t yet found a way to incorporate into our idea of the world and our sense of being in the world. We drink, we walk around, we go searching for the grave of a boxing-glove-wielding mafia lord somewhere in Zemun and find ourselves playing backgammon against the same Czech girl night after night in a café in Istanbul. And we find that this otherness opens up gaps within us, decentres us, gives us new desires that reshape our past as well as our future.

The real time for finding yourself, then, is upon the return, when you fill those gaps, centre yourself, and fulfil those desires, at least for a little while. You figure at what distance you want to keep that otherness, at least for a little while. You stumble around your past life scattered like a jigsaw puzzle, and find upon assembling it, that it now looks very different. You put on this new skin and pretend it’s who you always were.

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2 comments

  1. Hi there, Edwin, I hope that you are very well. I would love to chat with you about the possibility of your publishing some of your work with my magazine. Please get in touch with me via the attached email address if you are interested and would like to know more. Love your thoughts here!

  2. […] by consciously crossing them. This feeling is rarely more felt than when travelling, which, as I have written before, gives us a window in which transformation can once again become an immanent part of our lives. In […]

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