Zócalo Public SquareWanderlust – Zócalo Public Square http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org Ideas Journalism With a Head and a Heart Thu, 23 Nov 2017 01:59:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8 The Dark Void at the Heart of Globalizationhttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/03/07/dark-void-heart-globalization/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/03/07/dark-void-heart-globalization/chronicles/wanderlust/#comments Tue, 07 Mar 2017 08:01:42 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=84059 When I was a gloomy 16-year-old grasping to find some meaning in the world, my father gave me a tattered copy of social philosopher Michael Novak’s The Experience of Nothingness. Seriously.

There have been times over the past few decades when I’ve considered this “gift” a few yards short of insensitive and maybe even borderline teenager abuse. But I’m quite certain Dad’s intentions were no more malicious then than when he took me to see Annie Hall when I was 11.

The essence of Novak’s argument—and to some extent Woody Allen’s classic 1977 rom com—is that individuals can achieve some semblance of wisdom if they stop believing culturally sanctioned sentimental pablum about life (and love) and embrace the essentially tragic nature of human existence.

In my dad’s defense, Novak’s 1970 book was in no way a prescription for fatalism. Rather, it was an exhortation to find enlightenment on the

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When I was a gloomy 16-year-old grasping to find some meaning in the world, my father gave me a tattered copy of social philosopher Michael Novak’s The Experience of Nothingness. Seriously.

There have been times over the past few decades when I’ve considered this “gift” a few yards short of insensitive and maybe even borderline teenager abuse. But I’m quite certain Dad’s intentions were no more malicious then than when he took me to see Annie Hall when I was 11.

The essence of Novak’s argument—and to some extent Woody Allen’s classic 1977 rom com—is that individuals can achieve some semblance of wisdom if they stop believing culturally sanctioned sentimental pablum about life (and love) and embrace the essentially tragic nature of human existence.

In my dad’s defense, Novak’s 1970 book was in no way a prescription for fatalism. Rather, it was an exhortation to find enlightenment on the other side of disillusionment. Accepting life’s despair and emptiness, Novak argued, was a prerequisite for becoming a liberated and fully conscious human being.

Novak knew that what he was prescribing was no easy task. “Because it lies so near to madness,” he wrote, “the experience of nothingness is a dangerous, possibly destructive experience.” Having no recourse to the comfort of broadly embraced cultural symbols and benchmarks requires inordinate doses of honesty, courage, and ethical self-reflection.

Novak’s brand of transcendent nihilism was itself a response to a cultural breakdown caused by the rapid social change of the late 1960s. Neither nostalgic for tradition nor putting full stock in the coming of the Age of Aquarius, Novak’s push to accept the void was more a do-it-yourself guide to living in the void than it was a viable call to collective action.

[In his] brilliant new book, The Age of Anger: The History of the Present, [Pankaj] Mishra offers a sweeping, textured, unified theory of our dysfunctional age and explains what angry Trumpites, Brexiters, and radical Islamists all have in common: an utter fear of the void.

I’ve been thinking a lot about nihilism lately, both because Novak passed away in February and also because I just finished reading Indian writer Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant new book, The Age of Anger: The History of the Present. Mishra offers a sweeping, textured, unified theory of our dysfunctional age and explains what angry Trumpites, Brexiters, and radical Islamists all have in common: an utter fear of the void.

Eschewing facile political or religious explanations for the rise of nihilistic social movements around the world, Mishra points to a crisis of meaning wrought by globalization. He sees the destruction of local, intimate, long-rooted systems of meaning as the opening of a spiritual Pandora’s box within which lies infinite doubt and disillusion. Mishra sees these negative solidarity movements as the psychically disenfranchised targeting what they see as “venal, callous and mendacious elites.” Brexiters railed against liberal cosmopolitan technocrats, as did Trump’s white nationalists. Radical Islamists loathe the hedonism and rootlessness of wealthy Muslims who’ve surrendered to Western consumer society. Rather than advocate for an agenda that would provide them tangible returns, they all cling to nostalgia for simpler times and rally around their hatred for those they see as the winners in a new world order.

In Mishra’s view, this new world order isn’t simply neoliberal capitalism allowing money, goods, and services to flow unimpeded across the globe. It’s also the attendant ideal of liberal cosmopolitanism first advocated in the 18th century by Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire, and Kant. It’s the belief in a universal commercial society made up of self-interested, rational individuals who seek fulfillment.

Theoretically, modern global capitalism liberates individuals from the constraints of tradition, and encourages them to move about freely, deploy their skills, and fulfill their dreams. But the burdens of individualism and mobility can be as difficult to carry for those who’ve succeeded in fulfilling that modern vision as for those who cannot. A decade ago, one study found that a disproportionate number of Muslim militants have engineering degrees, a prestigious vocation in the developing world. So, while accepting the conventions of traditional society may leave a person feeling as if he or she were less than an individual, rejecting those conventions, in Mishra’s words, “is to assume an intolerable burden of freedom in often fundamentally discouraging conditions.”

What concerns Mishra most is that when personal freedom and free enterprise are conflated, the ambitions released by the spread of individualism overwhelm the capacity of existing institutions to satisfy them. There are simply not enough opportunities to absorb the myriad desires of billions of single-minded young people. As Mishra sees it, today’s nihilistic politics are themselves a product of the sense of nothingness felt by growing numbers of uprooted outsiders who’ve failed to find their place in the commercial metropolis. “A moral and spiritual vacuum,” he writes, “is yet again filled up with anarchic expressions of individuality, and mad quests for substitute religions and modes of transcendence.”

Despite his call to harness the experience of nothingness, Michael Novak duly warned of its dangers and potential for destructiveness. Unfortunately, his exhortation to lean in and embrace the void strikes me as about as helpful to frustrated millennials as it was to me when I was an angst-ridden teenager. The answer to today’s nihilistic political movements clearly isn’t more hyper individualism. Nor is a violent return to a traditional past realistic. No one knows how to escape from our current global age of anger. But I suspect that whatever answer there might be will first require us Western liberals to admit that we have finally reached the limits of the Enlightenment’s cult of secular individualism.

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Why the Politics of Nostalgia Are Dangeroushttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/04/25/why-the-politics-of-nostalgia-are-dangerous/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/04/25/why-the-politics-of-nostalgia-are-dangerous/chronicles/wanderlust/#comments Mon, 25 Apr 2016 07:01:20 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=72234 Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, I considered longing for a long-lost past a relatively innocuous exercise. I don’t really go for the iconic schmaltz of Norman Rockwell paintings, but I never thought that idealizing days of yore could be a dangerous activity.

But that was before Donald J. Trump launched a presidential campaign on the promise of making America great again.

On the surface, the real estate mogul’s pledge of renewing national greatness doesn’t seem so bad. After all, like any politician, he seems to be simply appealing to national pride and ambition. Couldn’t that just get our collective competitive juices flowing and produce more gross national excellence?

Well, no, actually.

Making a comeback or triumphing over one’s hardships requires more than nostalgia. Sometimes it requires the ability to visualize—literally—what a better future would look like. In a brilliant 2014 essay on beauty and

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Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, I considered longing for a long-lost past a relatively innocuous exercise. I don’t really go for the iconic schmaltz of Norman Rockwell paintings, but I never thought that idealizing days of yore could be a dangerous activity.

But that was before Donald J. Trump launched a presidential campaign on the promise of making America great again.

On the surface, the real estate mogul’s pledge of renewing national greatness doesn’t seem so bad. After all, like any politician, he seems to be simply appealing to national pride and ambition. Couldn’t that just get our collective competitive juices flowing and produce more gross national excellence?

Well, no, actually.

Making a comeback or triumphing over one’s hardships requires more than nostalgia. Sometimes it requires the ability to visualize—literally—what a better future would look like. In a brilliant 2014 essay on beauty and justice, Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis explores the power of images to propel people forward. She cites the example of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who decided to seek his freedom from slavery after spending too many Sundays feeling taunted by the gentle, unhindered movement of the sailboats on Chesapeake Bay.

Douglass would later argue that those most capable of inspiring change—poets, prophets, and reformers—are those who can conjure images that capture the contrast between what is and what could be. “They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is,“ he said, “and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”

By contrast, the image of the future Donald Trump is offering is not a reflection of what is, but rather of what may or may not have been. He hearkens back to a past in which Americans—or at least some of them—enjoyed unchallenged economic and cultural dominance. While it isn’t particularly clear what era he’s nostalgic for, “Making America Great Again” is less about achieving a shiny new vision as it is about restoring a gauzy old one. He is propelling us backwards.

“Making America Great Again” is less about achieving a shiny new vision as it is about restoring a gauzy old one.

The late Russian-born novelist and playwright Svetlana Boym made a distinction between two types of nostalgia, reflective and restorative. While the former tends to be wistful and dreamy (think of Reagan’s “Morning in America” imagery), the latter, which lies at the core of many modern national and religious revival movements, is deadly serious.

Restorative nostalgia has two essential plot lines, the first being the return to a hallowed past and the second being the conspiracies that explain why that past was lost. As such, these nostalgic movements come to be more about the search for scapegoats than they are about recapturing any sort of tradition. They’re particularly attractive to groups who feel victimized by change in the modern world.

Of course, Trump’s politics of nostalgia certainly has its cast of villains, including Mexicans, Muslims, China, and Japan. His rhetoric of restoration is clearly more focused on dealing with enemies—both within and outside our borders—than it is on inspiring or building the intrinsic capacity of the people whose greatness he says he hopes to reclaim.

Such aggrieved nostalgia may feel novel in a U.S. presidential race, particularly given the collective pride in our unwavering focus on the future. Yet it is all too common around the world. It underlies Islamist movements’ anger towards the West, Vladimir Putin’s project to restore Russia to its rightful place in the world, and the more virulent strains of Chinese nationalism. In places like the Balkans, a victimized sense of nostalgia is practically a birthright. Hence one of the paradoxes of the Trump phenomenon is that in seeking to “Make America Great Again” by invoking a litany of wrongs committed against us, he sure is making America more like the rest of the world.

The most extreme form of restorative nationalist nostalgia could be seen in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. While anti-Semitism had existed for centuries, Hitler employed what UCLA historian Saul Friedländer has called “redemptive anti-Semitism,” a national salvation myth that held that Germany’s prominence could only be regained through the removal of Jews. Since Hitler blamed Jews not only for Germany’s defeat in World War I but for the subsequent collapse of the monarchy, he argued that their expulsion—which later led to genocide—was necessary to make Germany great again.

I’m not implying that Trump intends to commit mass murder. But the rhetorical mechanism he employs is essentially the same. Far from being a quaint stroll down memory lane, the politics of nostalgia is a recipe for resentment, and potentially, revenge. It’s also a perfect way to blame others for your lot in life.

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There’s No Law That Says Art Museums Have to Be Pretentioushttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/04/11/theres-no-law-that-says-art-museums-have-to-be-pretentious/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/04/11/theres-no-law-that-says-art-museums-have-to-be-pretentious/chronicles/wanderlust/#comments Mon, 11 Apr 2016 07:01:11 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=71930 Three weeks ago, I was traipsing through London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with a friend of mine who has the attention span of a hummingbird. One minute we were admiring the intense reds in Ottoman-era ceramic tiles from Turkey, the next we were surrounded by the ferocious beasts that had been woven 600 years ago into wool English hunting tapestries. By the time we stumbled on an ornately carved, stunningly out-of-place 16th-century oak staircase from Brittany, I felt not only jet-lagged, but completely lost. At that point, my friend gave me a compassionate, slightly condescending glance and reassured me that that’s what museums are for: getting lost.

She was right of course. Losing one’s self in the colors, textures, and stories of long-gone or faraway worlds is one of the principal joys of wandering through museums.

But I’ve recently also come to appreciate how much museums can give us a

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Three weeks ago, I was traipsing through London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with a friend of mine who has the attention span of a hummingbird. One minute we were admiring the intense reds in Ottoman-era ceramic tiles from Turkey, the next we were surrounded by the ferocious beasts that had been woven 600 years ago into wool English hunting tapestries. By the time we stumbled on an ornately carved, stunningly out-of-place 16th-century oak staircase from Brittany, I felt not only jet-lagged, but completely lost. At that point, my friend gave me a compassionate, slightly condescending glance and reassured me that that’s what museums are for: getting lost.

She was right of course. Losing one’s self in the colors, textures, and stories of long-gone or faraway worlds is one of the principal joys of wandering through museums.

But I’ve recently also come to appreciate how much museums can give us a chance to go home. Since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed visiting Rembrandt’s tender portrait of his son, Titus, at my favorite museum in Los Angeles, the Norton Simon. Whenever I go to Madrid, I stop into the Prado to visit Velázquez’s slightly ridiculous depiction of Prince Balthasar Carlos riding an oddly plump horse. I learned to love the portraits of these boys when I myself was a boy, and over the years, each time I gaze upon them, I can recall the fascination I felt when we first met.

A few days ago in Chicago I got a chance to see an exhibition at the Art Institute that brought into focus the power of curating art around primary human themes. “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” brought together approximately 36 of the Dutch artist’s drawings, illustrated letters, and paintings, culminating in the side-by-side presentation of the three versions he painted of his bedroom in Southern France. The crowds were large and poorly managed—to the point of tainting the experience. But the exhibition’s success suggests to me that museums could do a lot more to make art speak to people where they live, both literally and figuratively.

Too much of the way we talk about art flows from the pretentious modern cult of the artist as countercultural alchemist or seer. Modern art museums in particular often glorify the marginal—read detached and superior—status of artists in our society. The worst exhibitions can feel like elaborate inside jokes in which socially ambitious visitors try their damnedest to enter the ranks of the cognescenti. In other words, the purpose of their gaze is to boost them up the social ladder rather than to understand how the artists’ work or life might cast light on their own lives.

Van Gogh was one of the first artists to be romanticized way out of proportion, not only for supposedly sacrificing his life for his art but for exhibiting a sensitivity that the world could not or would not understand. Remember the lyrics of Don McLean’s hit single, “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)”? “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

Oh please.

I just finished reading Steve Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography of Van Gogh, and let me tell you, the poor Dutchman was no self-righteous bohemian who felt himself above social norms. He desperately longed for the things we all do: family, a sense of belonging, and a place he could call home.

Van Gogh himself was an avid reader of artists’ biographies. He wholeheartedly agreed with Emile Zola’s famous dictum that when looking at art, one must look for the artist behind it. In other words, you shouldn’t appreciate art for beauty or ideas alone, but for the way it helps you connect with the creator, whose pains and pleasures, insights and insecurities, might very well teach you something about your own.

Too much of the way we talk about art flows from the pretentious modern cult of the artist as countercultural alchemist or seer.

When Van Gogh painted “The Bedroom” in October 1888, he had just finished fixing up the one-half of a dilapidated yellow house he had rented in a seedy neighborhood in Arles. Paul Gauguin had just agreed to come live with him, and Van Gogh was anticipating the joys of having a home of his own where he could “live and breathe and think and paint.”


The painting was instantly one of his favorites. He felt it captured the feeling of “overall rest or sleep.” Simple, intense, and painted in saturated colors, “The Bedroom”’s oversized furniture, elongated floorboards, and walls that seem to lean inward gently pull the viewer forward. Van Gogh was proud of its ability to monumentalize something so ordinary.

The painting’s restful beauty stands on its own. But what the Art Institute’s “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” exhibition does for the original painting as well as for the subsequent two—which were painted in an asylum after Vincent’s dream of a happy home had collapsed—is to contextualize them within the life of the artist.

The exhibition invites guests not merely to revere Van Gogh as a painter, but to empathize with him as a man whose desires and longings were not unlike our own. The entry hall to the exhibition details Van Gogh’s peripatetic life. In his 37 years on earth, he lived under 37 roofs across 24 cities. The first line of the first sign of the exhibition states simply that Van Gogh’s life “was marked by a persistent search for a home and a place of belonging.” The rest of the exhibition flows directly from that one sentence.

You wouldn’t know it from the lines outside the Art Institute of Chicago these days, but museum administrators across the Western World are scrambling to keep their institutions relevant in the face of rapidly changing demographics.

And yet for all the concern about the future viability of museums, few people are talking about the need for museum curators to change the way they frame and present exhibitions, to move beyond the insider art history mumbo jumbo curators use to narrate exhibitions. Labels emphasizing shifting techniques of craft, highfalutin intellectual concepts, or the minutiae of artistic movements seem to be written by Ph.D.s for Ph.D.s. The curators evidently assume that visitors should come to learn about art rather than to experience it.

But surely one can do both. To do that most effectively, it helps to frame and present works of art in terms that the broadest possible cross section of the public can understand.

It’s become a truism in the era of data overload that the curator is king. How we frame and present knowledge have become as important as the knowledge itself. Swiss-born curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has written that curating at its most basic should be about making connections between cultures and humans. You might describe it, he explains, “as a form of mapmaking that opens new routes through a city, a people or a world.”

Those routes should be drawn to arrive where people live, to appeal to their most fundamental memories, hopes, fears, and desires. Because neither the cult of the artist nor an undue focus on style or technique come close to shedding light on what it means to be human. And this, it seems to me, is the truest purpose of art.

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Why We Believe in the Illusory Promise of a New Yearhttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/01/04/why-we-believe-in-the-illusory-promise-of-a-new-year/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/01/04/why-we-believe-in-the-illusory-promise-of-a-new-year/chronicles/wanderlust/#comments Mon, 04 Jan 2016 08:01:10 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=68872 I love New Year’s. It’s as if everyone had the same birthday and we all have complete license to wish each and every one of us—even the strangest of strangers—well. The holiday doesn’t carry any deep national or religious significance. We don’t have to wave flags or feel obliged to muster gratitude for people whose bloodlines we happen to share. Nor is it organized around any long forgotten commemoration or some dumb game. It’s just a wonderfully arbitrary line in the sand that separates yesterday from today, the immediate past from the future.

New Year well-wishers don’t have to speculate whether you’re Christian, or Hindu, or Jewish, or atheist to decide whether to hide behind some muddled insignificance like “Happy Holidays!” New Year’s is non-discriminatory—a one-size-fits-all celebration. Never mind Thanksgiving, January 1 is really the universal holiday that everyone embraces equally.

Though the most secular of days, New Year’s nonetheless

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I love New Year’s. It’s as if everyone had the same birthday and we all have complete license to wish each and every one of us—even the strangest of strangers—well. The holiday doesn’t carry any deep national or religious significance. We don’t have to wave flags or feel obliged to muster gratitude for people whose bloodlines we happen to share. Nor is it organized around any long forgotten commemoration or some dumb game. It’s just a wonderfully arbitrary line in the sand that separates yesterday from today, the immediate past from the future.

New Year well-wishers don’t have to speculate whether you’re Christian, or Hindu, or Jewish, or atheist to decide whether to hide behind some muddled insignificance like “Happy Holidays!” New Year’s is non-discriminatory—a one-size-fits-all celebration. Never mind Thanksgiving, January 1 is really the universal holiday that everyone embraces equally.

Though the most secular of days, New Year’s nonetheless involves the most magical of thinking. To believe that somehow your life’s slate is suddenly wiped clean or that you get to start anew the moment the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve is pure illusion at its best. And we all eat it up! Unlike Santa Claus, the power and promise of the new year isn’t a myth that you wise up to at a certain age. If anything, your need to believe in starting fresh every 365 days gets stronger with age. And the best thing of all is that no one is liable to give you grief for believing such nonsense. Have you ever heard a strict rationalist scold someone for believing that you can start over in the new year? I’m guessing that even Richard Dawkins closed out 2015 sharing best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2016 with his friends and colleagues.

At the same time, there is something intrinsically anti-modern about the idea that time is circular. After all, our post-Enlightenment science-centered worldview generally has us believe that time—like progress—is linear. Time marches forward, not round and around. With each discovery or invention, moderns like to believe that over time things get cumulatively better. The very idea of progress is the belief that human life continues to improve as human knowledge grows.

Unlike Santa Claus, the power and promise of the new year isn’t a myth that you wise up to at a certain age.

But this quaint faith in progressive human improvement notwithstanding, there is something relentless and unforgiving in the very idea that time moves forward in a straight line. Linear time can, and will, pass us by—evidence of our own mortality. To believe that time is circular, on the other hand, allows for the possibility to, well, circle back, regroup, reassess, and embrace second chances and new beginnings. It’s comforting to think that the train will come around again to pick us up. At the very least, circularity allows for the possibility of redemption. It is why we are fond of recurring seasons.

So eager was I to assess and learn the lessons of 2015 that a few Sundays ago I texted seven of my closest friends and colleagues to help me rate my year. (I had decided I wasn’t a reliable source.) The answers were unanimous. It was good, very good even. But those who know me best knew that I didn’t just want a grade; I wanted to know what I could do better. What I really wanted was to hear how I could avoid making the same mistakes I made in 2015 all over again in the new year.

And that is perhaps the greatest thing about New Year’s. It is the only time when we are encouraged to resolve to do better without anybody having to make us feel guilty first. We are also encouraged to dream and make wishes for ourselves.

Whether or not our New Year’s goals are achieved is almost irrelevant. The point is that life is hard, and sometimes the smallest illusion like starting over again can help boost us along. Experience tells us that the luster of the new year will soon fade. But I think if you believe that the arbitrary clicking of the clock will automatically change your fortunes, then, why not, the world is your oyster.

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Christmas Is a Subversive Parablehttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/12/08/christmas-is-a-subversive-parable/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/12/08/christmas-is-a-subversive-parable/chronicles/wanderlust/#comments Tue, 08 Dec 2015 08:01:33 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=67814 The news out of the Middle East is relentlessly disheartening these days, but the other day I reread this amazing story from a while back about a child in the region whose birth was so threatening to his country’s ruling elite that the king slaughtered untold numbers of infants to make sure the boy would never grow up. Luckily, the boy’s stepfather learned of the king’s intentions in a dream, so he whisked his family away to exile in a neighboring country. Once the evil ruler died, the refugee family moved back to their homeland and settled near the Sea of Galilee, where a growing number of followers came to recognize the young man as the king of his people and, indeed, their savior.

The songs I hear in my local drugstore and on the radio tell me over and over again that Christmas is about joy. And, of course,

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The news out of the Middle East is relentlessly disheartening these days, but the other day I reread this amazing story from a while back about a child in the region whose birth was so threatening to his country’s ruling elite that the king slaughtered untold numbers of infants to make sure the boy would never grow up. Luckily, the boy’s stepfather learned of the king’s intentions in a dream, so he whisked his family away to exile in a neighboring country. Once the evil ruler died, the refugee family moved back to their homeland and settled near the Sea of Galilee, where a growing number of followers came to recognize the young man as the king of his people and, indeed, their savior.

The songs I hear in my local drugstore and on the radio tell me over and over again that Christmas is about joy. And, of course, it is. But that’s only half the story. The Christmas tale, which appears in only two of the four Gospels—in two very different versions—is a lot richer and more challenging than we generally choose to remember.

Every year around this time, I try to get my head and heart prepared for the holiday season. I ask myself what I should think about as Christmas approaches. What do I want to learn? How do I want to grow? I guess you could say it’s my personal version of Advent.

A year ago, I was so ill prepared for the season that I went to visit my good friend Frank McRae, who has studied the Old and New Testaments, to request guidance. He considered my question, went silent for a moment or two, and suddenly slammed his palm violently on the table. “He was born in a manger!” he yelled. “And yet they found him! Those three wise men didn’t let the humble surroundings distract them. They knew greatness when they saw it. It helped that they came from the East, from far away. They didn’t share whatever local prejudices there may have been against a child of humble parents in such humble surroundings.”

In one fell swoop, my friend turned my Christmas into a meditation on discernment, the need to see clearly, and to recognize goodness around us, in whatever shape or form.

In their wonderfully insightful book, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach Us About Jesus’ Birth, New Testament scholars Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan encourage us to understand the Christmas story for what it is: a parable, a metaphorical narrative whose truths lie not in its factual details, but in the multiple meanings we can find in it.

Of course, Jesus himself was famous for his parables, the best of which subverted conventional ways of seeing the world. These parables, Borg and Crossan write, “invited his hearers into a different way of seeing how things are and how we might live.” In other words, as invitations from Jesus to see differently, they were also opportunities for people to change their lives and circumstances.

Today’s popular Christmas stories are often sentimental and viewed through the gauzy lens of warm and fuzzy childhood memories. Unlike Easter, which more clearly invites believers to meditate on notions of sacrifice, repentance, and transcendence, Christmas is more likely to be focused on gift-giving family togetherness than on individual faith and transformation.

But the story of the birth of Jesus is clearly more than sentimental. It’s about the weak and the wise outsmarting the powerful. It’s about the humble and faithful turning the world upside down. As Borg and Crossan argue, these are not tales designed to safeguard the status quo.

So this year, as I celebrate the birth of Jesus with the ones I love, I will also be thinking about where exactly I stand in a world that clearly needs fixing, and whether I’m doing my part to help turn it upside down.

Because whether or not there has ever been a war on Christmas, the Christmas story is itself about conflict. And each December 25, we are given an opportunity not only to welcome joy into the world, but to declare which side we are on.

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Why Americans Care More About Paris Than Other Terrorist Targetshttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/11/23/why-americans-care-more-about-paris-than-other-terrorist-targets/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/11/23/why-americans-care-more-about-paris-than-other-terrorist-targets/chronicles/wanderlust/#comments Mon, 23 Nov 2015 08:03:26 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=67305 A terrorist attack on a familiar city can inspire a response among global observers not unlike that of motorists passing by a horrible car accident. We slow down to look, to try to understand what happened, see who was hurt, and wonder about the fate of the fallen. It isn’t blood and gore we’re after. It’s recognition. Are the victims like us? Could that have been me?

The horrible events in Paris inspired a round of global rubbernecking and then a sloppy debate over whether the Western World cares more about the victims in Paris than those in Beirut or Kenya and now Mali. Predictably that debate quickly evolved into one over race and ethnicity.

But there’s a deeper question to be asked here: How exactly does empathy work?

When the news of the Paris attacks hit, I was in a meeting in Washington, D.C. with a French-born publisher who

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A terrorist attack on a familiar city can inspire a response among global observers not unlike that of motorists passing by a horrible car accident. We slow down to look, to try to understand what happened, see who was hurt, and wonder about the fate of the fallen. It isn’t blood and gore we’re after. It’s recognition. Are the victims like us? Could that have been me?

The horrible events in Paris inspired a round of global rubbernecking and then a sloppy debate over whether the Western World cares more about the victims in Paris than those in Beirut or Kenya and now Mali. Predictably that debate quickly evolved into one over race and ethnicity.

But there’s a deeper question to be asked here: How exactly does empathy work?

When the news of the Paris attacks hit, I was in a meeting in Washington, D.C. with a French-born publisher who quickly became anguished over the news. She grew up in Paris. Her daughter lives there now. In fact, her daughter frequents one of the targeted restaurants. While the events disturbed me, this French woman was clearly more pained. She was safe. Her family was safe. But the news invaded her consciousness in a way that seemed to affect her physically. At one point she sat down on the floor, hunched over, and stared gloomily at her smart phone.

It wasn’t until I learned that Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old Mexican-American from Southern California, had been killed in the attack that news of the massacre struck me on a more personal level. Nohemi was an American. Like me. She was a Mexican-American. Like me. She was from Southern California. Like me. Suddenly the horrible events that occurred 5,600 miles away seemed closer to home. What I had seen as tragic now felt sad.

A few days after the attacks in Paris, I drove down to Cal State Long Beach, the university Gonzalez had attended, to ask some students how her death had influenced their emotional response to this act of terrorism.

At first what I heard were reactions not dissimilar to mine. People ticked off certain aspects of their multi-layered identities that connected directly to Nohemi’s story, which, in turn, made them feel more deeply about the tragedy in Paris.

“All life is meaningful,” 23-year old senior Ernie Smith told me. “But I related to the events more when I found out she was a student, at Cal State Long Beach. Then it really hit home.”

The distinction between generally caring and having that feeling really “hit home” is suggested in the difference between the origins of the words sympathy and empathy. Sympathy derives from the Latin and Greek words meaning “fellow feeling.” The word empathy came to English from the German word Einfühlung, which means something like “inner feeling” or “feeling into.” While often used interchangeably, empathy carries a more intimate meaning than sympathy and suggests that the subject understands and is capable of sharing an emotion with the object. Sympathy, on the other hand, implies a greater distance. In a nutshell, you feel empathy when you can imagine being afflicted by the tragedy in question, and sympathy when you cannot.

What 26-year-old senior Catherine Gillespie then told me explains further how identifying—then empathizing—with a victim of a tragedy can help place you, at least on some psychic level, closer to the incident.

“The band that was playing at the concert hall where so many people were killed was from Palm Desert, California,” Gillespie told me. “I’m from nearby Indio. If I had been in Paris that night, I would have gone to see them play.” In other words, her identification with the band enabled her to imagine suffering the fate of the concertgoers, which therefore made her feel for the victims more deeply. Her response also suggests that there is a strong connection between empathy and fear.

Before last week, I would have told you that selflessness is at the core of caring. But after the events in Paris and listening to people’s reactions, I realize that whatever else empathy does for our psyches, it is also a form of self-preservation. I empathize with you, because what happened to you could happen to me. And that would be really horrible.

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Écoutez Bien, Américains! Don’t Expect Paris to Make You More Sophisticatedhttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/11/10/ecoutez-bien-americains-dont-expect-paris-to-make-you-more-sophisticated/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/11/10/ecoutez-bien-americains-dont-expect-paris-to-make-you-more-sophisticated/chronicles/wanderlust/#respond Tue, 10 Nov 2015 08:01:00 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=66595 I hate Paris. That’s what I was thinking a few mornings ago while I was brooding over a café au lait at a hipster joint near the Canal Saint-Martin.

The coffee was perfectly roasted. The steamed milk almost fluffy. The young woman reading next to me had that perfect combination of elegance and boho grunge, style and studied insouciance that only a French woman can pull off.

You see what I did? I just said the word insouciance! Shoot me now!

This gorgeous city can do that to you—make you say words you wouldn’t be caught dead uttering at home and think thoughts you know you shouldn’t be thinking, well, anywhere!

But that’s why we Americans love it here, right? It’s the place we can visit to imagine the life our loved ones, our circumstances, or our better judgment would never let us get away with back in Peoria. It’s

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I hate Paris. That’s what I was thinking a few mornings ago while I was brooding over a café au lait at a hipster joint near the Canal Saint-Martin.

The coffee was perfectly roasted. The steamed milk almost fluffy. The young woman reading next to me had that perfect combination of elegance and boho grunge, style and studied insouciance that only a French woman can pull off.

You see what I did? I just said the word insouciance! Shoot me now!

This gorgeous city can do that to you—make you say words you wouldn’t be caught dead uttering at home and think thoughts you know you shouldn’t be thinking, well, anywhere!

But that’s why we Americans love it here, right? It’s the place we can visit to imagine the life our loved ones, our circumstances, or our better judgment would never let us get away with back in Peoria. It’s where you don’t feel indulgent ordering that bottle of 2005 Château Mont-Redon or taking the time to enjoy the profiteroles and then maybe a digestif after your main course. It’s where you’ll appreciate more art in one week than you did in the previous three years back home.

I suppose I should be grateful that there’s a place in the world that inspires us to slow down and actually enjoy—and not just consume—life. And to some extent I am. To the middle-class American imagination (mine included), Paris symbolizes the sophisticated, urbane, gracefully choreographed life we should all be living.

But there’s also something deeply unsettling about the effect this hyper-idealized city has on foreign minds.

There are two types of earthly paradises: the kind that draws you in, embraces you, and gives you space to reinvent yourself (say, California), and the kind that is so elusive that you can only dream about receiving that sort of embrace, even after you’ve entered its gates.

The archetypal American in Paris, Gertrude Stein, insisted that Americans love France precisely because it leaves them alone, because there is no embrace. Here, she said, expats “are free not to be connected with anything happening.” The brilliance of Paris, she mused, is its ability to imbue foreigners with “the emotion of unreality.”

Sure, there is an element of that in any place to which scores of tourists and expats flock. No one goes on holiday—for however long—to immerse himself or herself in “the real world.” What would be the point? But Paris—and France’s infamous culture of seduction—take unreality to a whole new level.

In La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, a book that’s slightly annoying because it tells us things like Henry IV was an “indefatigable lover,” New York Times correspondent Elaine Sciolino explains that French seduction is all about persuasion, charm, lingering, process, strategy, and subtle negotiation. Because there’s not necessarily an end to it, the means—the game, the dance—is the point. In France, seduction applies not only to personal encounters, but to commerce, diplomacy, politics, and even bureaucracy.

But whatever allure the idea of endless seduction might have for you, it might be instructive to recall that the French séduire derives from the Latin seducere, which means to “lead astray.”

Annie Cohen-Solal, the writer and Sartre biographer, told me over a drink the other night that she also thinks Americans find France so fascinating in part because it eludes them. She finds it ironic that the city that symbolizes for so many the release from narrow, practical, middle-class constraints is itself the most bourgeois of places.

“France is still a very traditional country,” she told me. “People want to keep it that way. There is a strong elitist tradition, particularly in education. Old, heavy institutions play a big role here, and civil servants run the show. That’s why tastes are very, very slow to change.”

In other words, for all its human diversity, Paris’ great beauty derives in no small part from an aesthetic and cultural consensus that only a deeply hierarchical society can maintain. Contrast the relatively uniform architectural styles of any major boulevard in central Paris to the wild variety on any major street in New York or Shanghai. This also helps explain why the uber French Louis Vuitton Foundation had to choose Frank Gehry, an American architect from Los Angeles, when it wanted to design the single most revolutionary new building in town.

I realize it’s a little unfair to blame Paris for the illusions we have of her. And ultimately my interest is not in the city itself, but on the psychic effects built—and, in this case, imagined—environments have on the people who live and visit.

My biggest problem with Paris is that it’s a cop-out for so many foreigners who come to conjure the myth of their more sophisticated selves. There is nothing wrong with inspiration or aspiration—two things this city provides in spades. But illusions are no substitute for real life and flirtation can never trump the value and meaning of a warm, genuine embrace. If tourists and expats cared so much about cultivating their finer selves, they’d go back home and do it—for real—rather than rely on a visit, however long or short, to give them a temporary fix. While we’ll always have Paris, you don’t have to walk her streets to live the life she inspires.

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Longing for L.A.http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/10/27/longing-for-l-a/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/10/27/longing-for-l-a/chronicles/wanderlust/#respond Tue, 27 Oct 2015 07:01:08 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=65885 I ran away from home at 14 years old. I didn’t grab a backpack and go sleep at a friend’s. I didn’t steal away in the middle of the night. Rather, I convinced my stunned parents to send me to Spain to live with a free-spirited aunt I barely knew.

The ensuing year, my sophomore year of high school, pretty much determined how I’d live my adult life—at least so far. Madrileños taught this cul-de-sac’d suburban boy how to take nightly strolls, to find refuge in cafes and bars, and otherwise live much of my life in public. Madrid turned me into what my mother calls a callejero—someone who’s always in the calle, or street.

But only recently have I realized how moving away at such a young age changed my very understanding of what home means.

If you ask me whether I love L.A., the city I was

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I ran away from home at 14 years old. I didn’t grab a backpack and go sleep at a friend’s. I didn’t steal away in the middle of the night. Rather, I convinced my stunned parents to send me to Spain to live with a free-spirited aunt I barely knew.

The ensuing year, my sophomore year of high school, pretty much determined how I’d live my adult life—at least so far. Madrileños taught this cul-de-sac’d suburban boy how to take nightly strolls, to find refuge in cafes and bars, and otherwise live much of my life in public. Madrid turned me into what my mother calls a callejero—someone who’s always in the calle, or street.

But only recently have I realized how moving away at such a young age changed my very understanding of what home means.

If you ask me whether I love L.A., the city I was born in, raised around, and have lived in for more than 20 years, I’d say absolutely, yes. But my stated love for the place may not be based on any objective merits or anything this rapidly gentrifying city actually has to offer me.

In thinking about why people attach themselves to certain locations, I discovered that my own attachment to L.A. comes from two sources, both of them rather romantic.

First, I was baptized at La Placita Church, the same place my father was baptized in 1930. La Placita is across the street—and derives its name—from La Plaza, the center of the original pueblo of Los Angeles, which was founded in 1781. In other words, the very site of my baptism connects me to the origin story of my city on several levels—gathering together my familial, religious, ethnic, and civic identities. For me, La Placita is the epicenter of all that is genuinely L.A.

A city, in the final analysis, is the collection of stories its citizens tell about it. A truly great civic culture is the blending of millions of narratives into a powerful sense of belonging for as many of its residents as possible.

Popular culture, particularly in a city like L.A., plays a powerful role in this collective narrative. How many Angelenos have not heard classics like “I Love L.A.”, “Ventura Highway,” “It Was a Good Day,” or “Free Fallin’”? While in Spain, I gained a special love for Joni Mitchell’s “California,” and would sing it aloud whenever I got homesick.

The old adage tells us that home is where the heart is. But Tony Bennett convinced us long ago that you can leave your heart just about anywhere. Having moved away so young, I learned—through songs and movies—to mythologize home from a distance. And this is the second romanticized source of my Angeleno attachment: absentee nostalgia.

My personal understanding of home, then, wasn’t that of a city where I necessarily lived or even found comfort in, but rather a place where I often didn’t find myself and would occasionally long for. My love for Los Angeles, in other words, is driven largely by nostalgia, longing, and memory that goes well beyond my lived experience. Does this make my affection for the city any less real? I don’t think so.

But still, there’s nothing more replenishing of my attachment to home than the occasional—OK, frequent, if we’re honest—escape from it. I feel the need to leave Los Angeles every so often, as surely as I feel the exhilaration every time my plane touches back down at LAX upon my return.

The great geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has written elegantly about the eternal tension between place and space. “Place is security, space is freedom,” he writes. “We are attached to the one and long for the other.”

While my personal experience encourages me to love home from afar, I think L.A.’s often-maligned sense of placelessness—read freedom—simultaneously seduces me from a distance. Even the iconic view from my living room window—the palm trees, the Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood sign—sometimes makes me feel as if I were looking out at a distant Oz that remains perennially beyond my reach.

I’ve been traveling a great deal lately and the other day I realized that the only place I’ve felt jet -lagged was in Los Angeles, which seemed sort of perfect. I had that wonderfully fuzzy far-from-home feeling right here—at home.

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The Everyday Miraculous Gestures That Pope Francis Did Not Mentionhttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/10/12/the-everyday-miraculous-gestures-that-pope-francis-did-not-mention/chronicles/wanderlust/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/10/12/the-everyday-miraculous-gestures-that-pope-francis-did-not-mention/chronicles/wanderlust/#comments Mon, 12 Oct 2015 07:01:12 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=65198 A few weeks ago in Honolulu, an accomplished, middle-aged woman I met at a cocktail party told me the most tragic love story. In a nutshell, this woman had her heart broken at an East Coast college three decades ago. When she went back home to recover, she met a man on the rebound as a way to assuage her pain, married him, and raised a family. After nearly 30 years of marriage, they divorced two years ago. Not long after, in what appears to be a coincidence, she received an email from the man who broke her heart when she was only 21. Although they had not been in contact since college, he confessed to her that he had always loved her. While the man himself was divorced after a long marriage, he was now living with someone new and therefore could not rekindle the romance he abandoned so

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A few weeks ago in Honolulu, an accomplished, middle-aged woman I met at a cocktail party told me the most tragic love story. In a nutshell, this woman had her heart broken at an East Coast college three decades ago. When she went back home to recover, she met a man on the rebound as a way to assuage her pain, married him, and raised a family. After nearly 30 years of marriage, they divorced two years ago. Not long after, in what appears to be a coincidence, she received an email from the man who broke her heart when she was only 21. Although they had not been in contact since college, he confessed to her that he had always loved her. While the man himself was divorced after a long marriage, he was now living with someone new and therefore could not rekindle the romance he abandoned so long ago. Evidently, he simply wanted to get his feelings off his chest.

I asked my new friend what she felt about all this. She said she was grateful to have the “circle closed” and that she, too, had always loved him. Indeed, he was the only man she ever truly loved.

I’ve told the story to multiple people since then—I, too, needed to get it off my chest!—and everyone has a different reaction. Some see it as wholly tragic. Others see it as beautiful. Still, some consider the college boyfriend a huge jerk for reaching out three decades later with no intentions of starting a relationship. I, on the other hand, take it as a poignant parable on the unexpected ways our lives can be affirmed and uplifted from even the most unexpected of sources.

Think about all the people who manage to “get to us” in life, and not just in the romantic sense. Don’t you wonder why certain words and gestures can resonate more than others and continue to move us years later?

More often than not it has been relative strangers like Elio who could make me feel, despite all my self-doubts, that I belonged just by being myself.

Last week, while taking a morning walk through the University of California, Berkeley, my stomping grounds three decades ago, I found myself missing a burly Italian-born gentleman who ran the café I frequented just about every night of my undergraduate career. Elio De Pisa wasn’t my friend in any conventional sense. He didn’t know my mother’s name or the story of my grandfather. If asked, he couldn’t have rattled off my favorite movies. But the little he did know about me, he acknowledged and vocally embraced.

I’ve never been the most socially adept person, and I was even less so in college. The everyday rituals of dating were never really an option for a kid as quirky and shy as I was. Nor, given my (literally) medieval intellectual interests, did I know exactly to which group I belonged. To wit, I was a born and bred agnostic who was drawn to early Christian philosophy.

Whenever I came in for my daily coffee and conversation at Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum, Elio would mock me lovingly for studying religion. “Gregorio Agustín de Salamanca!” he would call out whenever he saw me. (He knew and seemed to be amused by the fact that Augustine was my favorite saint.) The one time I was stupid enough to meet a young woman in that geriatric café, he told her not to trust me because I was a Jesuit. “With Jesuits you always have to read between the lines!” he bellowed.

Looking back, I realize that more often than not it has been relative strangers like Elio who could make me feel, despite all my self-doubts, that I belonged just by being myself.

In his Philadelphia homily, Pope Francis insisted that, “like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures.” He talked about the “the little miracles” that are quietly shared within loving families, those gestures “of tenderness, affection, and compassion” that “make us feel at home.”

But what he didn’t touch on was the way non-family members—colleagues, bosses, acquaintances, shopkeepers, café managers, and even strangers—can also bestow upon us little miraculous gestures that can lighten our load, give us confidence, and ultimately make us feel a little more at home in the world.

Last November, I gave a brief, frenzied, slightly nutty talk at the Getty Museum at a symposium that had been organized around the work of Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, an artist whose stark depictions of exile and alienation I’ve admired since college.

After my talk, Koudelka, whom I had never met, came up to me, repeatedly stuck his finger in my chest and asserted rather aggressively in his broken English, “You are who you are supposed to be. Some people will hate you. Some people will love you. I love you.”

I have no other way to describe that odd little moment other than as a tremendous gift, the memory of which somehow helps me understand my small place in the world.

It makes me think that the email my Hawaiian friend received from her long lost love was less a romantic gesture than it was a profound acknowledgement that a man whose affections she had once craved thought she was special, a feeling he deprived her of when he broke her heart so long ago. It was a particularly welcome acknowledgment, I assume, after her recent divorce.

We cannot live on gestures alone. But in a world that allows us to move faster and farther from home than ever before, it’s important to realize that it may very well be the kindness of strangers that helps keep us going.

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The Purpose of Travelinghttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/09/09/the-purpose-of-traveling/ideas/nexus/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/09/09/the-purpose-of-traveling/ideas/nexus/#comments Wed, 09 Sep 2015 07:01:23 +0000 By Gregory Rodriguez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=64027 I hop on planes a lot because life is hard. I don’t mean that I jet off to Cancun or Bermuda to recuperate from the burdens of the daily grind. What I mean is that I often go to far-off places that can teach me how to better endure the things in life I find most unendurable.

Last week, my wife and I walked 102 tough miles in eight days in the lush, rain-soaked Scottish Highlands. There’s nothing quite like an eight-hour hike in the pouring rain to get you thinking about why you travel and where you do it. Maybe it was the blisters, the knee brace, and the roll of tape wrapped around my left knee, but some bleak mornings I just wanted to say to hell with Scotland. It rained six out of the eight days. And even when it was “dry,” the perennial gray skies seeped

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I hop on planes a lot because life is hard. I don’t mean that I jet off to Cancun or Bermuda to recuperate from the burdens of the daily grind. What I mean is that I often go to far-off places that can teach me how to better endure the things in life I find most unendurable.

Last week, my wife and I walked 102 tough miles in eight days in the lush, rain-soaked Scottish Highlands. There’s nothing quite like an eight-hour hike in the pouring rain to get you thinking about why you travel and where you do it. Maybe it was the blisters, the knee brace, and the roll of tape wrapped around my left knee, but some bleak mornings I just wanted to say to hell with Scotland. It rained six out of the eight days. And even when it was “dry,” the perennial gray skies seeped into my body, mind, and spirit. While I was supposed to be communing with the open wilderness, I felt hemmed in and constrained by the heavens. By the end of day five, I felt downright miserable. But then I received a late night text from a good friend back home in Los Angeles that helped me realize not only why I was there, but what it is I love most about traveling.

In a landscape of so much hopelessness, the legacy of an oppressive dictator, and a morally corrupt ideology, these were the things that struck me most: the power of love and a people’s sheer ferocity in the face of complete tragedy.

Although I’m scheduled to fly upwards of 100,000 miles this year, I don’t call myself a traveler. I get tongue-tied whenever I’m asked the inevitable “business or pleasure?” question. I mean, what am I supposed to say? Both? Neither? Must I choose? Is life itself “business” or “pleasure”?

In his odd little essay, “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau explains the origins of the term sauntering. The word is derived “from idle people who roved around the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under the pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land. Sensing their duplicity, children would then exclaim, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a saunterer, a Holy-Lander.

That is how I view the term “traveler” and the many people these days who blithely say they “love to travel”—mere saunterers. And particularly after last week’s rain-soaked musings, I’ve come to think that travel should be more purposeful than that.

I’m partial to places that may seem godforsaken, places where residents have to grapple with human deprivation, isolation, and darkness. I’m deeply curious as to how people manage to survive the slings and arrows of life. Sure, I can enjoy Paris as much as the next guy. There is no denying its beauty. But the City of Lights also sometimes seems like an Impressionist still life that calls me to ponder life’s perfections and delicacies rather than its struggles.

One of my most rewarding trips ever was the three weeks in 1997 I spent traveling around Romania. I wanted to know how Romanians were managing to move beyond the material and spiritual deprivations of the Communist era.

A man I met on a train took me into the sewers of Bucharest to introduce me to a group of children who lived there, and a saintly nun from Arizona took me on her regular visit to an orphanage for children with congenital deformities. In a landscape of so much hopelessness, the legacy of an oppressive dictator, and a morally corrupt ideology, these were the things that struck me most: the power of love and a people’s sheer ferocity in the face of complete tragedy.

And that is what the best travel is to me, the opportunity to strip life to its essentials, not in order to go beyond the culture in which I live, but to remind myself of what culture is for in the first place: to help us survive life’s travails and keep us going. And it certainly helps to put my own bourgeois “travails” in perspective.

A dozen years ago, during the Second Intifada, the Israeli Foreign Ministry invited me to their country and asked me what I wanted to learn. I told them that I wouldn’t speak to politicians or soldiers and that my only interest was how the average Israeli citizen survived the daily stress of terror. I interviewed artists, playwrights, social workers, and psychologists. On that trip, I learned the power of denial and adrenaline.

My favorite cities in Europe are Berlin and Dresden, where, like in Bucharest, one is obliged to grapple with the evils of the not so distant past. A decade or so ago, I spent Christmas Eve alone in a hotel room in a snow-bound and empty Dresden as a way to redefine the holiday away from the trappings of family and tradition and towards more fundamental concepts. Like peace and goodwill.

Alain de Botton recently wrote, in a Financial Times column, about the medieval Catholic tradition of pilgrims taking long journeys to touch the body part of a long-dead saint to help cure whatever ailed them. The Church had a guide to pilgrimages that matched destinations with ailments. At one point, de Botton points out, there were 46 sanctuaries in France alone that welcomed women who were having trouble breast-feeding. Similarly, those who suffered from a painful molar could travel to the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Rome, where they could touch the arm bones of Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of dentistry. Though moderns don’t generally believe in the power of relics to cure them, de Botton encourages today’s travelers to “hang on to the idea that certain parts of the world possess a power to address complaints of our psyches and bring about some sort of change in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we just remained in our bedrooms.”

De Botton’s exhortation explains why I’m drawn to godforsaken places. The ongoing complaints of my psyche only make sense, and can be put into proper perspective, far, far away from my bedroom.

Indeed, sometimes it helps to go to the most remote inhabited island on earth, as I did several years ago when I took a six-week trip to Tristan da Cunha. I hopped on a plane to Cape Town and then hitched a ride on a research vessel for six days before I reached the British-ruled volcanic speck of an island in the South Atlantic. Though my ostensible goal there was to learn about the effects of inbreeding on asthma, what I was forced to study firsthand, in an isolated village of fewer than 300 blood-related souls, were the ways humans try to control each other to protect themselves from one another and from the outside world. There I learned the power of kinship and of harboring a collective disdain for “the others.” Well, before the six weeks were up, the disdain was mutual and I was ready to go home.

Which brings me back to my bleakest days in Scotland. Although the culmination of a life-renewing weight loss effort, the 100-mile walk was no small undertaking for me, a chronic asthmatic whose lungs generally don’t respond well to humidity, or to nature, for that matter. But then came that text message from my friend on the night of day five. “What an achievement,” she wrote. “It’s like you’re walking into a new life. Going through a Scottish birth canal. Only through misery do you find purpose and clarity.” And there it was, I was suffering both physically and mentally because I was being reborn into a healthier and physically more disciplined life. The idea of death is implicit in that of rebirth.

With each step and heavy breath through the Scottish Highlands, I was actively discarding the years of disappointment, anger, and sadness that led to my putting on so much weight. Walking through Scotland, it turns out, was a way for me to actively grapple with my own darkness. I assure you that the trek was neither business nor pleasure. I can say, however, that it was exactly what I love about traveling.

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