Does Traveling Change Who We Are?

May 4, 2024

One of the unexpected opportunities of being my age is that finally, somebody might tell me that I am an “old soul.” It’s not something I heard growing up, or really, ever. Being viewed as an old soul means that people think you have wisdom far beyond what you should have at your age. Maybe I’m finally an old soul, not because I’m so advanced or precociously wise, but just because I’m so old! Maybe being old, even if I’m not wiser than my years, gives me an Old Soul Free Pass. I’ll take it either way! Some people believe that wisdom emanates from experiences in your life, others believe some humans are born with it or acquire it way more quickly than others, and some believe that wisdom is somehow passed down from humans from previous generations who learned key lessons. Call it evolution, call it spirituality, or call it what you want, I believe it is real.

My youngest son Dawson has that old soul vibe to him. Some of the ways I see it are how peer pressure, and worrying about what others think, is not really a thing for him. I see it in how he is so often sure of what he wants and the path he wants to take. And I see it in the way he listens to others and is constantly looking to learn from them.

I was thinking about all of this because my youngest son/old soul Dawson came home on Friday from his four-month adventure in Japan. Therefore, Friday was a spectacular day. I got to pick up Dawson at LAX. Twenty minutes after walking out of the airport, he was enjoying a Double-Double and a chocolate shake from In-n-Out. Welcome back to America!

We did visit him in Tokyo back in February, and we had frequent FaceTime conversations with him while he was there, but it is so good to see him in person and at home. He returns to college for a summer field session (a project-based graduation requirement at the very awesome Colorado School of Mines – Go Orediggers!), then he comes back home for a few weeks, then he heads back for his senior year. So, we are making the most of our time together, chatting and laughing between his visits from friends and his crazy jet-lag-influenced sleeping patterns. We were eating dinner together this week (Dawson’s requested menu – filet mignon on the Big Green Egg, Dawson’s Roasted Potatoes, and Sauteed Broccoli – recipes at the end of the post). I love great food and even better dinner conversations, and this dinner met both of those criteria. 

During dinner, I asked Dawson whether he thought that his extended time in Japan and all of his experiences there fundamentally changed him. We all talked about what it means to be fundamentally changed – some kind of personality change, a change in your belief system, or maybe a change in your life’s direction. After thinking and discussing, he said that his experiences in Japan did not do that for him, at least not yet. I probably should ask this question again in a year or so. He did say that he felt that it helped him to learn a great deal more about himself and to gain confidence in himself. He traveled to and through Japan, alone in many cases, dealt with all of the decisions and uncertainties that come with travel, concocted plans, adapted those plans when they went awry, and found his way in a country where English speakers are hard to come by. He also said he gained an appreciation for a remarkable culture very different from how he grew up, and those broadened horizons will stay a part of him throughout his life. All of that, and he made new friends from Temple University (Go Owls!), the school that runs the Tokyo campus.

Pretty good stuff right there. And isn’t that what travel is supposed to do? Sometimes, it’s hard to think about the vast world and worlds beyond ourselves. We all have so much going on in our lives. We have to deliberately do something to get us outside of our lives and learn about others. It was the great philosopher Ferris Bueller who said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” And looking around means more than just making a snap judgment based on what things look like compared to what you are used to. We cannot help but see others through our lenses, and those lenses are often clouded with a true lack of understanding. And sometimes, even when there is strong evidence countering what we have believed for years, we fear a tectonic shift in our thinking. Truly looking around requires us to make a sincere effort to take off those lenses and face those fears. 

It was just five centuries ago when another great philosopher (also a pretty darn good astronomer and mathematician) figured out that earth was not the center of the solar system. Nicholaus Copernicus actually figured it all out 36 years before he published, but he waited until the end of his life to share his discovery and his truth, as he was pretty sure he would be imprisoned or killed for findings that pretty much destroyed everything about what humans thought they knew about earth, the sun, the planets, and the stars. Good call, Nick. It’s just one more instance of book banning as a futile effort to prevent change. In the last five years or so, it seems like I’m seeing too many places in America that are using those same 16th century philosophies, seeking to keep ideas they don’t like off of book shelves and out of people’s heads. As Ray Bradbury said in Fahrenheit 451, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

But if we want a world where people, nations, and cultures better understand each other, we need to keep those matches away from ideas that matter. We need ideas and experiences in our lives that encourage us to look beyond ourselves and our own belief systems. For all of the hopes and dreams of technology, social media has pretty much squashed our ability to see ideas and philosophies that differ from our own. We have to take initiative to expose ourselves to those different ideas and philosophies. We can do that through books, through conversations, and yes, through travel.

That’s why I’m so thrilled that Dawson took the time to travel. Although going overseas is a great opportunity, it is not an easy decision to make. It’s usually way easier to stay where you are, get the things done that need to be done, and be with the people you love to be with. And there’s nothing wrong with the easy route. But my wish for all of us is that we find ways and transcend the demands of everyday life, and find ways to travel, whether through books, conversations, or actual excursions, to get to know people and places unknown. We don’t have to boldly go where no man has gone before, but as often as we can, we should try to do some interacting and thinking that is outside of our circle of comfort.

I love Mark Twain’s thoughts on most things, except when he offends me. (I laughed while writing that last sentence.) On the topic of travel leading to greater understanding, he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Exactly, Samuel.

So here’s to changing the world by learning about others. Here’s to making a difference in our world by doing our best to understand other cultures. Here’s to ideas, good and bad, seeing the light of day. And here’s to all of us, by seeking out learning and getting outside of our circle of comfort, becoming old souls and wise beyond our years. It’s never too late.

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I cut this out of the post, as it was getting a little long, so for those of you who read the notes (and you’re awesome for sticking with me!), here’s some bonus content. I remember in my 1982-83 year abroad, when the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain were still very much intact, I spent quite a bit of time in East Germany, speaking with professors and other college students. I walked away with a strong disdain and healthy fear of totalitarian governments (Animal Farm is spot on), but also with a sense of respect and appreciation for ordinary citizens, who had no source of reliable worldwide information, who appreciated having their basic needs taken care of, who feared their government but would never say so, and who were all surprised to hear my version of life in the United States, which was not nearly as horrible as they had been taught.

A few others thoughts . . .

The Church did ban Copernicus’s book, and they later punished Galileo for saying Copernicus was right. (Though after much consideration, the Catholic Church did officially clear Galileo of all wrongdoing in 1992.)

This is my Tokyo Blog Post, posted after Jill and I returned from visiting Dawson in Japan.

And here are the recipes for the dinner: Steak, Dawson’s Potatoes, and Sauteed Veggies

Finally, today, May 4, 2024, would have been my son Sean’s 31st birthday. I think about him every day, but I sure would have enjoyed celebrating with him today. Here’s my post on him from 2022.

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  1. Deborah Hofreiter says:

    I’m reading this column in Cork, Ireland. I completely agree with your premise. Everyone should travel when young. It aids self-confidence and humility. Not sure if it transforms, but it certainly grows the individual. Amen.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Very cool that you are reading this on the Emerald Isle! As one of the most voracious readers I know, it will only add to all of the learning about others you have done in your remarkable life. Thanks, my friend.

  2. Michelle McDonald says:

    Loved reading this! My husband and I just spent 6 weeks in Vietnam, with shorter visits to Taipei, Siem Reap, and Seoul, and it was incredible to talk with local people and our guides about “the American War” which we of course call the Vietnam War. Perspective changing, for sure! So glad your son got to study in Japan. It will probably be a highlight of his life.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thank you, Michelle. You’ve had some wonderful experiences. Siem Reap is indeed wonderful. I don’t know if you got a chance to visit the Killing Fields memorial. That is a reminder of the dangers of autocratic leadership, and the extreme dangers of leaders who blame certain groups of people for the nation’s problems. May both of us continue to learn from other cultures, and thanks as always for reading and commenting.

  3. Daniel Wren says:

    Great writing as usual. Reading and travel are wonderful ways to make profound personal changes. As for the Catholic Church and Galileo; better late than never. 😳

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Better late than never. And actually, doing it that late, and finally closing the book on it, took some courage. Thanks Pope John Paul II!

  4. Kelli says:

    Happy birthday to Sean… and here’s to open eyes and hearts who heal the world one trip, word, and brave act at a time. Thank you, MM. 🩵

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thank you, Kelli.

  5. Wayne Reel says:

    I love being in other cultures, enjoying the differences, appreciating our shared experiences as human beings. Travel has broadened who I am. It accelerates inner growth and stimulates our sense of wonder.
    Reading books from other cultures, making friends with neighbors from other cultures, eating ethnic foods, watching foreign film can serve the same function as traveling, if one is on a budget.
    In the 50’s, there was a hit song called The Wayward Wind. It certainly applies to my need for new places, new faces.
    I’ve found that when I travel, I meet more of myself.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      One of the many great things about you, Wayne, is that your eyes, your mind, and your heart are wide open. You relish new experiences and new relationships, and you always are looking for ways to improve on your already spectacular self. Thanks for the constant inspiration.

  6. Bill Sampson says:

    “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.” Nat wasn’t bad either.

    In an oddity for us we were in Malibu for about seven days in April. The most “different” culture we visited was Texas, for the eclipse, despite my swearing, back in 2014, immediately after waddling to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highpoint of Texas, that I would never again set foot in it. [Semanticists and grammarians have doubtless already noted that “highpoint of Texas” is an oxymoron, but, I digress.] Despite our misgivings we saw the eclipse and met some decent folks – note that we were in the Austin area. The two eclipses I’ve seen now have changed me – neither Texas nor Idaho (2017) did.

    The almost two weeks on Kauai with my daughter ALWAYS changes me for the better. And Mike, I periodically think of Sean also to remind myself how lucky I am to still have Margaret. She now leads me snorkeling in the same place where I literally towed her over the reefs. I am lucky indeed and wish Sean had celebrated his birthday with you.

    On another note, Twain was seldom wrong. He was also one of our funniest writers leading us up to Dave Barry. I get to wander off topic too. Best to you and yours from all of us.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Bill Sampson, I know I shouldn’t say this, as it just might encourage you, but you may be at your best when you are wandering off topic. Thanks for not writing, “no offense,” after mentioning the states above. That is one of my least favorite phrases. When I heard, “No offense, Dr. Matthews/Mike . . .,” I knew I was about to be criticized at best, or insulted at worst. Oh well. Thanks for your thoughts on travel and change, and thanks for your kind words about Sean. It means a great deal.

  7. Susan Scheding says:

    Based on an ancient Sanskrit proverb, American Field Service student exchange programs have been using this as a motto since the early 50s. You can’t ignore other cultures and people when you’re standing right in the middle of them.

    „Walk together, talk together,
    all ye peoples of the earth;
    then and only then
    shall ye have peace.“

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      That is fantastic, Susan! Thank you!

  8. Ben Dale says:

    I know this falls into the category of, “that’s what you got from this?” but Dawson’s hair is pretty epic.

    Your blog was good too.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Ha! You always go deep, Ben Dale. But, in this case, you are absolutely right. It’s real, and it’s spectacular.

  9. Seth Finn says:

    This time Mike, you’ve really got the important stuff right. 1)In n Out is always awesome (Eli, Laurie and I were at that same LAX In n Out a few days ago). 2)Ferris Bueller is among the great philosophers of all time.

    Happy birthday to Sean, I can’t prove it, but I do believe we can have relationships that transcend the here and now, it’s up to us to make that happen in our own very personal ways.

  10. Jen Cochran says:

    Loved reading this Mike. I hope you will remember to ask Dawson in 5 years and even 10 years whether this semester changed him. I think we are all shaped by our experiences and it may take him some time to see how this influences the choices he makes or the path he follows. If nothing else- I’m sure he ate some amazing food!

  11. mark massey says:

    “All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.” – Dr. Sammy Johnson, 18th century British writer extraordinaire

    I do not recall Fr T covering this quote in English Lit.

    Also, to sort of paraphrase the inscription on the base of the statute of Emil Faber: Travel is good.

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