Friday, February 1, 2013

Slow Travel

One of the Brothers in California told me about the time when he was sent to the Philippines as a missionary, over fifty years ago. He said that it took 17 days by boat. I like that. Today it only takes 17 hours by plane. On a ship, you might spend the time walking along the decks, chatting with passengers, having leisurely meals, doing some writing or reflecting or nothing at all, and enjoying the rhythm of the journey. I’ve never heard of anyone suffering from “ship lag.” On a jet airplane, on the other hand, you are slotted into rather confining seats (“Yes, sir, 22D is down the aisle and to the left.”) in very close proximity to people you don’t know (Whose elbow will get that arm rest?), kept busy by mystery meals that appear and disappear within 20 minutes, seduced by multiple movies of dubious character, and lulled to catatonic complacency by the rhythm of the engine drone. Perhaps “jet lag” is nature’s way of telling us that traveling this way puts us out of sync with the universe, as if we didn’t know that already.

To be fair, plane travel is entirely practical for most people. It’s the quickest way to get from point A to point B on the globe. If we had the time, most of us would likely choose to travel differently, by train or ship or even by car. There are still vestiges of the excitement of that kind of travel, even with airplanes. It may be seen in the way people jostle to get onto the plane at the beginning of their journey, happily settling their baggage in the overhead, stuffing their magazine, books, snacks, etc. in the seat pocket in front of them, harboring the simple excitement of going on this really fast jet ride. However, that same excitement seems to be reversed at the end of the plane trip, when most people can’t wait to grab their stuff, escape down the aisle, hurry up the ramp, and move out into the more familiar surroundings of mother earth. What began with eager interest ends with stoic relief.

One might make an analogy to the way that people approach life. Some see it as a journey to be experienced and enjoyed, as children do, while others see it as a burden to be largely endured, as some older people do. Some are happy at the prospect of life’s daily moments, while others are fearful of life’s daily challenges. Most of us are probably a mixture of both, weighing more to one side or the other depending on circumstances and the state of our digestion. But all of us are provided with the ability, the opportunity, to choose our disposition. Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked, People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be”. We can all probably think of a few friends or family members who are good examples of this. In fact, the ability to make a specific choice shapes the consequences of that choice and its effect upon us.  The phrase “Fake it ‘til you make it” works because it’s driven by choice, achieving its transformative power from the effect of cumulative choices. What we choose to do literally changes our world and that of others.

I’ve always liked some advice that St. John Baptist de La Salle gave in a letter to one of the Brothers: “To my mind, what I must ask of God in prayer is that he tell me what he wants me to do and inspires me with the disposition he wants me to have.” The second part is the interesting bit, because we don’t often hear that about prayer. Yet I believe that it may be the real driver for the first part. Our disposition / perspective / attitude / viewpoint / frame of reference provides the means to focus in on what’s important and what’s next for us.

Maybe that’s why ship and train journeys continue to be attractive; not because they are efficient but because they are not, giving us a chance to quietly walk the deck for a while. It makes me wonder if my frequent flier miles can be used for ship or rail travel. That would change my disposition about flying quite nicely.