Fear: Beyond Routine
When people hear about my travel gig, their comments range from:
"oh that must be exciting, going this place and that place all the time, on a moment's notice"
"don't you just hate traveling? I mean never knowing where you are? And being away from all that's familiar?"
Along the lines of the latter, I have encountered a few "don't you get scared?" queries.
A lot of that type of commentary comes from Japanese, who have a history of living in isolation. And especially for the older of them -- so conditioned to life on their (relatively)-hermetic archipelago -- that response makes a certain sense. But for the rest of those commenters who fall into the "don't you hate it?" camp, surely their view has to do with a more generically human trait . . . which is that humans are -- by and large -- creatures of habit; and, as such, they are wed to discernible routines which they tend not to want to depart from. And, of course, me being (well, depending on who you ask) human, I am not that much different. There are certainly times that I adhere to that same preference for patterning and certitude.
To give you a simple example (since I'm sure you are dying to know), after work (which I physically go to every day -- even though I am not actually required to) I work out at a sports club -- following the same general regimen of weights, jogging, and basketball -- after which I head to the neighborhood 24 hour supermart. That market, being planned and run by humans, also adheres to a routine. There is a recorded greeting as one collects their basket at the entry ("welcome to our store") and as they exit ("thank you for shopping"); the recordings shower down on customers without fail (and often enable a simultaneous contradictory serenade when customers are moving in the opposite direction at the precise moment). Then there are the items set out for display: the tissue and toilet paper in the vestibule are a constant; as is the fruit at the mouth of the store, the vegetables to the left side and extending back toward the fish section. In my 5 years or so of patronizing this place, the meat has always been in a designated location, with the chicken following it, to the right, along the far wall. Ditto the milk and juice and soft drinks and alcohol all bleeding one into the next in the sections that delineate the perimeter. And, in the same way, in the store's midsection, one finds fixed locations for the cereals, the cookies, the canned goods, the seasoning, the personal care products, the pet food, and the pre-prepared microwavable plastic-wrapped stuff (so, now you know what's on my nightly shopping list).
Now, I want to say that it is remarkable (although, since humans are involved, I suppose it really isn't) that for the 5 years that I have shopped at that particular store, the supermarket has not manifested any deviation from this rigid routine. And the same with its staff. For these 5 years, there has been a night crew of 6 -- four at the cash registers, two managers (one senior, one assistant) walking the floors, stocking the aisles. And, save for random variation wrought by illness and turnover, as school graduation curtails the need for this or that part-timer to pull in spare income, these six staffers have remained rather fixed.
Kind of depressing, when you think about it, uh?
Sure, but there is an underlying physics at work -- one that compels this result: humans crave stability. In part because stability brings safety (or, in the case of businesses, economy). Stability also delivers certainty (which, for businesses certainly also contributes to economy). The kind that enables us to save time, to reduce the energy which produces loss (as measured in money for sellers, stress for buyers). And at least on that last point, as we all know from observing hamsters standing in line to get on the treadmill, reduced stress can lead to prolonging life. More time to live! Hence, more time to be filled up with . . . what? You guessed it: doing more of the same thing we did yesterday -- in exactly the same way!
Even more depressing.
Not everyone yearns for stasis. And the quest for difference is one valid reason why many of us book passage to another place. But even when this is so, we are not free of that niggling voice of consternation that crops up and often takes residence on the shoulder, growing heavier the closer our target draws near:
"is it really going to be okay?"
"Am I really going to get through this without mishap?"
"Do I really know what I'm getting myself into?"
"Have I really armed myself with enough intel to keep me out of harm's way?"
I have a trick for overcoming that fearful voice: a mechanism built on equal parts of past (non-tragic experience) and future (presumed benefits to be secured). It is a potent combination, a slam dunk usually powerful enough to induce me onto the telephone to score some plane tickets and hotel reservations.
But yesterday, I was reminded that for others travel may be more like a muffed lay-up. Insight arrived in the form of one of the staffers at the supermart, the fifty-something manager stocking the produce, who I routinely encounter each evening after my bout with the treadmill. We exchanged our routine greetings and ended up in a less-than-routine exchange, that went something like this:
He: "I haven't seen you in a while."
Me: "Yeah, I was away. Overseas."
He: "Oh? Whereabouts?"
Me: "America. Los Angeles."
He: "Oh, I was in Los Angeles some years ago."
Me: "Oh really. How was it?"
Me: "Horrible? Really? . . . Why?"
He: "Well, in Hollywood they had all these brand goods and they were more expensive than over here in the stores. But inside the bags?: they all said 'Made in China'. The brand goods here are not made in China. They come from the real makers -- you know France and Italy."
Me: "Yeah, well . . . you have to be careful about getting cheated over there, that's true."
He: "And then, near my hotel? That was over near Chinatown, and the train station, in the down town area? It was so filthy. And there were so many homeless out on the streets."
Me: "Yes, that's true. It's really unfortunate that there are so many homeless in America."
He: "But the thing was -- those people, they came right up to me for money. Right into the McDonalds -- actually inside the store! And they would follow me to the hotel. I didn't know what they were saying, of course, but they touched my arm, to make me look at them, and then they put their hands out and asked for money. And then . . . if they weren't satisfied with what I gave them, they would start arguing with me! Can you believe that? They demanded even more! I was so surprised!"
Me: "Yes, I suppose that would be upsetting."
He: "Well, yes. Upsetting, certainly. I mean, we have homeless in Japan. Some. A few. But they don't follow you into your hotel. And they don't get angry if they think you haven't given them enough. It was frightening, to tell you the truth. I was very, very scared."
Of course it was. For this guy -- a slight man, even smaller than my petite daughter -- a guy who spends his nights stacking onions and lining bottles of soy sauce in neat rows, a guy who is conditioned to the routine? I could imagine how some American with an unkempt beard and tattered clothes intent on shaking coin from a cowed foreigner would be intimidating. As for me, I know that that part of LA looks worse than it really is. That place is well-patrolled, it has its share of well-heeled types who rent out the pricey lofts near the station, so not much untoward was likely to come of these confrontations. [Now, there are other parts of town that I would never think of setting foot in at night, but the Chinatown/Union Station district isn't one of them.]
Still, my store manager wouldn't know that. Not having lived there.
And, apparently, not having given himself over to the secret of travel . . . the willingness to move beyond fear.
For the peripatetic, the regular traveler, there will always be places that are uncomfortable, since they lie beyond his or her general routine. The important question for the traveler to other venues, though, is this: "is the fact that I am encountering uncertainty enough to check me? Is that sufficient to bar me from these realms unknown?"
Or to restate it in the negative: "Will the fear of what lies beyond . . . here . . . be enough to keep us cemented in our safe routine?