An Adventurous New Year To You All
30th December 2012 |
My long-held belief that adventure travel is good for the world in general got a welcome boost last night.
Like most people my age I am an occasional insomniac and some nights I turn to the radio to wile away the early hours. Most of the long wave stuff is a mixture of rantings, fantasies, conspiracies, and miracle cures, but my local public radio station has some surprises and last night I found myself listening to a program called Humankind.
A couple of sociologists were talking about the harmful effects on society of extreme financial inequality, and that, as we know, is most marked here in the States.
Richard Wilkinson, a professor at Nottingham University in England, was particularly persuasive, and he had some nice figures to back him up.
Essentially he argued that a gross imbalance between high and low earners is divisive (well, we know that) and drives people to put the pursuit of money above the pursuit of happiness. In consequence they spend more time working and less time communicating with family and friends.
(Incidentally he had some intriguing studies to show that having lots of friends is good for your health)
For really low-wage earners working several jobs is probably a necessity, but for the great majority, the middle classes, it has more to do with pumping up the image and with fear of losing ground.
The really important thing to recognize here is that they are drawn into this incessant beavering away because they lack confidence in themselves as persons, and confuse their own worth with net worth.
Fearing that they can’t command respect simply by being who they are, they hope to do it by packing ever more horsepower into their garages, and ever more goodies into their houses.
None of this is really news to me. I never cease to be amazed at the importance people attach to stuff. From my own experience I know that anyone who travels any distance in this world comes back much more secure in their own value, and much less interested in the trappings of a consumer society.
The irony is that despite all this frantic activity and consumerism, the wages of ninety percent of Americans have scarcely moved in forty years, while the infamous one percent have become richer to the point of obscenity. Well, all right, this too is an old story, which the Occupiers were retelling raucously a year ago.
But last night I heard some startling evidence of a different connection; although when you think about it, you can see it must be true. It apears that the more unevenly wealth is spread across a society, the more violent and abusive that society becomes.
And one of the causes of this unpleasantness is that people have lost the art of talking to each other about what matters because they spend so little time doing it.
One thing that has always bothered me in America was how scared people are to talk about politics or religion, as though it could lead to bloodshed.
A friend of mine, a Royal Marine, once described the three stages of a discussion in the officer’s mess after the port had gone round a few times: they were a bald assertion, a flat denial, and physical violence. He was joking, but often in America I feel it’s not a joke.
One of the skills a traveller has to acquire to stay out of trouble and to benefit from the experience is the ability to talk to people who have sharply different ideas; usually political or religious ideas, but occasionally ideas of inflicting actual bodily harm. And now, suddenly, I see how important it is that as many of us as possible develop this skill and practice it.
I live in a country where 20 school children were recently slaughtered and 34 people are murdered by gunfire on average every day. While at the other end of the spectrum of violence a bunch of politicians are willing to do great harm to a lot of poor people because they’re too hot-headed to talk to each other. I would make it obligatory for every congressman to travel alone across India or Africa, preferably on foot. They’d come back with a more useful perspective on life.
Meanwhile we have to do it for them, and the more of us doing it and infecting our neighbors with tolerance and understanding the sooner we will be able to dig ourselves out of this pit of greed, and rage, and suicidal consumption.
What a traveller learns to appreciate is the beauty and value of human beings and their natural instincts. In my view, what American workers need above all else, is longer holidays, a fairer slice of the cake, and a lot of friends. Instead of busting a gut for the man.