A few days after this column appears, I will visit my 100th country: Cambodia. I am writing this column aboard a ship on the South China Sea along with 200 of my radio listeners.
I consider this a major milestone. And I admit to being proud of it. It is not easy to visit a hundred countries (most of them at least twice); it takes far more commitment than it does money. But the reasons I consider this a major milestone go beyond that.
It is major because all this travel has been life-changing and life-enhancing. For many years, I have urged young people to take a year off after high school to work and to take time off while in college to travel abroad, ideally alone for at least some of the time.
Nearly everyone grows up insular. The problem is that vast numbers of people never leave the cloistered world of their childhood. This is as true for those who grow up in Manhattan as it is for those who grow up in Fargo. And as for college, there are few places as insular and cloistered as the university.
Insularity is bad because at the very least it prevents questioning oneself and thinking through important ideas and convictions. And at worst, it facilitates the groupthink that enables most great evils. Although one can hold onto insular and bad ideas even after interacting with others, it is much harder to do so, especially when one interacts on the others’ terms, as must be done when traveling to other cultures (and especially when traveling alone).
It is therefore one of the most maturing things a person can do. It is also one of the most humbling. I will never forget the effect of hosting a weekly radio show in which I was the moderator among clergy of every religion. After five years, I announced this conclusion: “The moment you meet people of other faiths whom you consider to be at least as decent, as least as religious, and at least as intelligent as you think you are, you will never be the same.”
This is not to suggest that the inevitable consequence of international travel is multicultural relativism — the belief that every culture is equal, that no culture is morally or culturally superior. On the contrary, my going abroad every year for 42 years has strengthened my appreciation of both Western culture and America’s unique value system (what I call the American Trinity: liberty, in God we trust, e pluribus unum).
But there is one benefit to international travel that probably cannot be gained in any other way: Other nations and other peoples become real.
When I began traveling at the age of 20, I had one goal in mind: I never wanted to hear the name of a place in the news and not be able to relate to it. Let’s be honest. Until you go to India or Honduras, they are abstractions. One can major in Indian history or Latin American studies, but two days in one of those countries makes that country more real than four years of reading about it.
One of life’s great moral challenges is to see the stranger as fully real. While travel does not guarantee that one will see all others that way — the father of modern Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, spent two years in America in the late 1940s and left seeing Americans as caricatures of decadence — it is very hard to do so without travel.
You also learn a lot about life. For example, I learned very early on, in the first of my four visits to India, that poverty was not the cause of crime I was taught it was at college. In fact, aside from abject, starvation-level poverty, it is not even the main cause of human unhappiness. In most of the poor places of the world, children seem considerably less jaded and laugh more easily than many American children.