For the Sake of Reason

Like many people who thrive on travel, I have been restless. Okay, thrive may be an overstatement in my case. But the point is, every day it gets stronger, this pull toward the road, toward movement and change of scenery. I’ve been watching Michael Palin travel videos, Nature videos on PBS, and reading my favorite international authors, imagining myself wandering through their descriptive, exotic settings. But it’s not enough. So a few weeks ago I decided it was time to begin, however tentatively, planning a trip. Who knows when I’ll be able to get a Covid vaccine; I’m at the end of the line according to the predictors, so spring is likely to be the earliest unless availability increases beyond current expectations.

I’ve traveled almost exclusively alone since 2014 with the exception of my motorcycle travels (with several people but most recently and most often with Mark). Mark has been to every continent on the planet and a majority of its countries, so he isn’t especially keen to revisit his old haunts, preferring instead to go to new places like Bhutan and Japan. (He hasn’t been to Central America so that is a place we may yet visit together.) That leaves me with a lot of ground to cover on my own.

So I began looking for another travel companion or two for some of my destinations. My dearest friends have careers, relationships and/or children, all stumbling blocks to joining me for more than a week or two somewhere. This leaves me with one alternative: meeting someone new. This is a tricky undertaking for me. I’m not looking for a romance, short or long term, and in case you don’t already know this about me, I’m one of those people who generally prefers the company of animals and plants to other humans. I’m shy, introverted, and insecure, acutely aware of the ways I no longer fit in, and unsure if I ever did. My reason for wanting someone to travel with on occasion is a matter of practicality above all else. There are places where women are safer in numbers (let’s face it, those places where this isn’t the case, at least to some degree, are vastly exceeded by those where it is). The cost of accommodation is halved if you have a companion, meals can be shared, as can excursions or activities (snorkeling, rafting etc) that cater to couples and groups. I rarely experience loneliness as a result of being solitary; my bouts of loneliness are primarily rooted in Jackson’s absence and therefore internal. I can be in a room full of people and feel devastatingly alone. But there is no denying that it’s helpful to have a co-planner, someone to take the load off when I’m tired, to suggest activities when I don’t have the energy to research, and to be a buffer when I don’t want to make connections with others around me. And at the end of the day, it sometimes feels good to have someone to tell about some new experience, or better yet someone with whom to share the experience itself. There is undoubtedly some truth to the adage about the power of shared experiences.

I found several websites devoted to the search for a travel companion, but the first few I came upon either charged a fee or, upon perusing the listings, felt too much like a dating website. Then I read a blog post by a woman who recommended a site exclusively for women. By taking men out of the equation, the likelihood of mistakenly choosing someone looking primarily (covertly) for sex is reduced. I read a few profiles and saw three or four women who, at face value, looked to have travel styles and personal qualities that might be compatible to mine. I composed a profile and sent out inquiries to these women.

I received positive replies, and we began correspondence. I’d mentioned my reasons for traveling in my profile on the website and disclosed Jackson’s death in the process, figuring it was best to get that out of the way and in the open from the start, so that anyone who was innately uncomfortable with grief would have an automatic out before ever taking a step in. One woman wrote to say how sorry she was about what happened, and said something to the effect of not being able to imagine how difficult these past few years had been. I wrote back and thanked her for her sentiments, and asked her some questions about her travel goals and time frame, and her life in Nevada. In her next email she answered my questions, then related to me that her car had broken down on Thanksgiving morning as she was preparing to drive to San Diego to spend the holiday weekend with her son and his family. She went on to say that she wasn’t bothered by the breakdown because she interpreted it as a “sign” that she shouldn’t make the trip and concluded with the ever childish, always banal and for me, anger-triggering bromide: “I believe everything happens for a reason.” 

She was talking to someone who had experienced the death of their child, who had told her so, and to whom she had one day prior expressed her sympathy. How did she expect me to interpret that remark? I know she wasn’t trying to hurt me. I don’t think she even stopped to think how I might hear, “Your son’s death happened for a reason,” but I can only conclude that she thinks this is the case. She had just said “everything,” had she not? That is the nature of these toxic panaceas, they address it all, from broken down cars to death. 

I could write an entire essay on the casual brutality (albeit unintentional in most cases) of that one sentence and indeed have written an entire essay on that sentence and a few more like it (see the link for “Don’t inject your religious beliefs into my grief” on this blog), but the gist of my antipathy to that kind of blanket and simplistic thinking is this: It isn’t really thinking. It’s a substitute for thinking, and when used in reference to trauma someone else has endured, it minimizes the suffering the person is experiencing. In the case of a death, it goes on to trivialize the life they are grieving for by implying that it wasn’t important enough to be spared, that their death was perhaps a punishment, or that it is meant to teach someone (presumably the listener) a lesson that they must have needed to learn. That there is a “reason” obviously presupposes some force (“God”, “the universe”) to which the speaker has chosen to assign prescience and omnipotence, a force which controls everyone’s destiny: every second of every minute, every thing good, bad and indifferent, that happens in the lives of all 8 billion people on the planet and, by extension – unless only humans are so lucky – the lives of all the animals, birds, fish and insects (of whom there are 10 quintillion. Yep, that’s 18 zeros.) Maybe even plants. After all, they’re living too. The bottom line is it’s dismissive, it blames the victim, it imparts not a scintilla of knowledge nor does it accomplish anything except to make the speaker feel better and the listener feel worse. It is a non-thinking person’s answer to anything and everything, a lazy way out of addressing and reckoning with anything, good or bad, which they don’t understand or for which there is no reason – only a cause and effect chain of events that brought about the event in question, which they may never be privy to – from the breakdown of their car on the day they were hoping to travel, to the death of a loved one and everything in between.

I refrained from replying immediately, instead taking the day to decide whether to write back and ignore it, write back and address it, or just cease communication and hope she’d get the point. The only choice that felt right was the second. I’m gentle by nature and I have always avoided conflict if possible, but I also value honesty and one of the things that’s changed about me since 2014 is my lack of patience for listening to drivel. It’s a liability, I realize, and it has and will continue to cost me.  

I tried to be tactful, but I don’t know if I succeeded. I explained that she had offended me with her offhand remark, offering a watered down version of the above, and asked her to please think carefully about saying such a thing again, to perhaps even reflect upon what such a statement actually means, and why she has chosen to adopt such a theory. I concluded by saying that we may be different enough in world view that we wouldn’t make good travel companions.

I half expected her to write back and tell me where to stick it, while secretly hoping she’d write and apologize. But she didn’t reply at all. I decided it was for the best, but at the same time part of me felt guilty, wondering if I had overreacted. I spent a good week fretting about the matter, contemplating sending another email asking her to just forget it, and suggesting we start over. 

But a week later I am resigned to the facts. I only have so much energy, and I want to spend it wisely and be fruitful. My threshold for emotional stress has been severely compromised by my grief, and I have no idea how long it will take before it begins to rebound. Meanwhile my priorities have shifted. While I always want to be kind and wouldn’t hurt someone’s feelings on purpose, protecting my own feelings has become at least as important to me as protecting the feelings of others, and far more important than the feelings of mere acquaintances and strangers. 

So I let it go, and wrote instead to the other three women, revealing with each successive email more and more of who I am and what matters to me. With a bit of luck, we’ll meet up down the road.

Here’s a great article about the recent trend our society has fallen into of mistaking pretty words and wishful thinking for wisdom. It’s brief but eloquent. I encourage you to read it rather than watch the video. 

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: