There are plenty of little things I’m ready to learn on the road and bigger challenges I’ll face along the way. But I think the greatest thing anyone can take away from travel is learning how to understand and accept people in all their complexity, and that is very much an ongoing process.
I first experienced this – as I did many things – during my study abroad.
As humans, we naturally seek to create order out of chaos, and we look for ways to organize the people in our lives. We take mental shortcuts to save time and energy. So let’s not pretend we ever fully abandon the high school jocks versus nerds mentality.
I, like many a fellow nerd, retreated into the depths of my introversion and un-coolness, and came out of it with a very clear picture of the kind of person I would want to invest my time in.
If you devoured books and had trouble relating to most people, we were in the same boat. If you played team sports and went to keggers, we most definitely were not. I readily embraced my unpopularity, and used that heavily exaggerated sense of social rejection to justify shutting people out. But the fact is, I am just as responsible for the social divides in my life as anyone else.
My study abroad program took me away from the people I had known for all those years and, in a way, took me away from myself. I wasn’t just surrounded by people I had no preconceptions of; I was also surrounded by people who had no preconceptions of me, and there was a special freedom in that realization. That lack of expectation on either side, coupled with the shared experience of being Yanks in the UK, opened me up to friendships with people who weren’t my “type.”
The guy I initially wrote off as the biggest pothead I’d ever met was actually super intelligent and often went out of his way to make sure the girls in our program stayed safe. The super religious girl was still sweet and fun, and we’ve actually stayed in touch years after parting ways.
The people I formed really close friendships with in England were still people I had lots in common with, but for the first time I didn’t let an apparent lack of common interests keep me from getting to know more. I realized that travel is how I can escape my judgmental self, the one too bogged down in day-to-day life to see people as they are.
Keeping an open mind about who could play an important role in my life is a never-ending work in progress, but that promise of relating better to others will always keep me traveling.