There is a peculiar way in which getting somewhere too fast may lead us to fail to appreciate or see it, because we properly apprehend things only by recreating them in our imaginations through delay or absence.
By Alain de Botton
Over the course of a week last year, I found myself spending a good deal of my waking—and sleeping—hours at Heathrow airport. I’d been appointed Heathrow airport’s first writer-in-residence, which involved writing a book about a week spent living at the airport. My tenure overlapped with the Icelandic volcano eruption, and while there I observed hundreds of the most frustrated passengers in the world sitting out the ash cloud chaos. As they had time on their hands and I had a desk with a sign above it saying “Writer-in-Residence,” many people came and regaled me with stories of disaster: weddings missed, contracts canceled, affairs on hold… Yet as they spoke, I couldn’t help but sense a certain pleasure they were taking in these dramatic tales. It was almost as if these stranded passengers were for the first time feeling themselves to be true travelers, adventurers rubbing up against the gritty coal face of intercontinental transit, rather than shrink-wrapped units that eventlessly glide across the airline logistics network.
Whatever the advantages of plentiful, swift and convenient air travel, we may curse it for sometimes being not painful or slow enough to help us derive the real advantage of travel: a sense of change. We arrive in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay only hours after leaving home, with a touch of jet lag at worst, our phones whirring with messages, our history still clinging to us like goosegrass burrs. There is a peculiar way in which getting somewhere too fast may lead us to fail to appreciate or see it, because we properly apprehend things only by recreating them in our imaginations through delay or absence. Venice must have felt a great deal more real when one had to cross the Alps to reach it. We are too often cursed by the speed with which our technology fulfills our desires. No sooner have we thought of the Mount of Olives than we can theoretically be on our way there and so have no opportunity to suffer the immense interval between desire and gratification that pilgrims to Jerusalem once endured, and which, for all its unpleasantness, had the incalculable benefit of allowing them to imaginatively inhabit and lay claim to their destination.
I mention pilgrims because religions have been very sensitive to the paradoxical benefits of difficult journeys. Medieval travel in Europe was hard at the best of times, but committed Catholic pilgrims went out of their way to make it even harder, foregoing the use of river barges or horses in favor of their own feet. A pilgrimage from northern Europe to the remains of St. James the Apostle in Santiago could take eight months, with pilgrims leaving in the spring not making it back before the onset of winter. These pilgrims were not being perverse in their insistence on slowness and difficulty. They were aware that one of our central motives for traveling is a desire to put the regrettable aspects of the past behind us. Furthermore, they knew that one of the most effective ways of achieving a feeling of distance from follies, vanity and sinfulness is to introduce something very large—like the experience of a frustrating month-long journey across a desert or a mountain range—between our past and our desired future. Our attempts at inner transition can be cemented by a protracted and hazardous trip. If inner change is difficult, then we may need a commensurately difficult outer journey to inspire and goad us.
It’s evident that modern travel can be frustrating and never quite as easy as we would hope. Nevertheless, beneath the surface disgruntlement, in my time at Heathrow, I often spotted signs of a childish thrill to be once again on the road, free of routine, open to new experiences. There is a nomadic side to all of us that not even the most hellish airport can fully subsume.
In any case, difficult trips have the benefit of teasing out some of the underlying ambitions of travel. They mean that our journeys are no longer mere blanks, without any power to alter our future, and once again have a minor chance to play a role in the development of our souls