We all know someone with wanderlust. The kind of person that does not like to stay in one place for long. The kind that has a burning hunger to adventure to unknown places and have unplanned experiences, to see things and try things they would not be able to see and try by planting roots. This type of person often gets overlooked by society as a throw away person. They are stereotyped as not contributing to society and lacking direction.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The saying “not all who wander are lost” is the reality that many people are too ignorant to accept. Certain types of people spend time wandering and it is a necessary component of our society. Just the way bees play a necessary role in cross pollinating different plants, wandering persons play an important role in spreading cultural ideas and community. They benefit themselves through self discovery and they benefit society by adding color and texture to it.
The idea that we all have to live in the same way is preposterous. A traveling lifestyle is an alternative way of living. The average traveler supports themselves by finding work as they travel or buy using artisan skills to earn a meager living. They are independent, despite living on the cheap. Who would find fault in that, besides someone who fears and rejects people they do not understand? The traveling lifestyle is harmless and offers the traveler great reward.
The next time you encounter a compulsive traveler, be gracious to them, not judgmental. The kind of person who wanders is soulful and is seeking answers. Some people do it by nature and some do it to heal from past hurts. Either way, they are on a personal journey that is harmless to the rest of society. What they are doing requires bravery and open-mindedness. They possess the courage to step away from the security of the working world for a time and listen to what the universe has to tell them.
Humanity has a love affair with traveling. We have an innate desire to wander and adventure in order to experience everything our habitat has to offer. We want to know what is just around every corner and behind every waterfall. A number of things may spawn this desire to travel, ranging from a curious nature to defiance against parents or coping with a past trauma. Or perhaps it is merely because we evolved traveling as we populated the earth. Whatever causes it, wandering and traveling is an old tradition for humanity.
The modern wanderer is typically inspired by figures like Henry David Thoreau and Jack Kerouac. Both of these historical literary figures abandoned a life among society, at least for a time, to travel their respective areas of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. There have been many other prominent travelers, such as Chris McCandless who traveled from the United States to Alaska in the 1990’s, who inspired generations of people to follow their wanderlust and live according to their own rules for a time instead of society’s.
But this tradition did not begin in recent centuries. Many aboriginal peoples have traditions that date back thousands of years that involve the young people of their tribes venturing into the wilderness for a time as a rights of passage ritual. Many cultures in many nations embraced long standing traditions of sea-faring and trekking for their young people, incorporated into their coming of age years. This is an important and well respected practice through out the world.
In modern times, a majority of Westernized youth does not participate in this old tradition of humanity. With global culture reigning supreme and young people more enchanted with their cell phones than with the natural world and its humanities, traveling as a right of passage is becoming a lost art form. Those that discover it, however, will often claim it was the most magical years of their lives.
There are people in this world for whom security and responsibility are the primary values. They follow all of society’s rules, receiving responsible degrees, entering the work force when they are expected to and creating a very tidy life for themselves and their loved ones. And then there are those who do not fit that mold. The ones who question all of society’s constructs, who get degrees in the arts and then, instead of taking a career, choose to wander the planet instead, at the cost of security and financial responsibility, in order to discover themselves.
People have the freedom to choose between these two options, however, only one of them is going to earn them the praise and support of society. All of Western society is constructed to accommodate the first type of person; the one who fits into the predetermined mold. Society honors people like this because they follow the rules and do not rock the boat. Society knows that they will be a loyal tax payer and consumer, and celebrates their lifestyle.
For those who think there is more to life than receiving a good pension and wish to throw away the rule book that society offers, there is much less support. Those who take time to travel, learn about the world, experience life changing moments and gain perspective are offered very little. They have to hope for seasonal work, beg for a place to stay and not hope for anything more than minimum wage. Every establishment they work for or with assumes they have a permanent address somewhere. Tax law is not written for their circumstances. There are numerous ways that long term travelers are told by society that their lifestyle is not welcome.
Like so many have voiced, society is crumbling around the rigid constructs that it tightly enforces. If it does not find a way to make room for people with alternative lifestyles, such as travelers, it will fall apart.
There is a unique part of our psychology that we experience while we are traveling, and it comes much more naturally to some people than it does to others. Being home in the midst of routine and familiarity exercises certain parts of our brain, while pulling up our roots to travel and wander exercises other parts. The non-traveler is focused on organization, efficiency, duty and comfort, while the traveler is focused on whatever moment they are in.
By stepping out of our day to day lives in order to travel, we are exploring a different side of our identities. It feels that we are pretending to be someone else for a time, which for most people, is delightful and cathartic. There are those who feel very uncomfortable travelling, as if they are betraying their responsibilities to their usual identities. Studies into human behavior reveal, however, that having the ability to move fluidly between one’s stationary identity and one’s travelling identity is a sign of good mental health and awareness.
The ability to surrendering one’s sense of control in order to embrace adventure shows strength of character and flexibility. It is a sign of strength for someone to step into the unknown of travel and embrace it rather than feel nervous because of it. Humankind evolved to be able to wander. Wandering has been a necessity throughout human history. Not only has it been a necessity, it has also been an instinct. People experience spirituality, purpose, self-discovery and personal growth while they are travelling.
People use travel and wandering as a form of escapism. It is true that people can come to depend on travel too much, to the point that the compulsion to travel becomes a type of unhealthy addiction. But a degree of escapism is simply therapeutic, and people are entitled to healthy amounts of escapism. Travel is a very healthy expression of a person’s need to escape and experience radically different things than their day to day life can offer them.
The expression “itchy feet” is centuries old, but still captures the essence of wandering quite well. The expression came from the metaphorical representation of what a wanderer does to relieve their wanderlust. Where as someone with itchy feet would not be able to hold still for long, likewise, a compulsive wanderer is not able to stay in one place for very long. This can be for healthy reasons or unhealthy reasons, but their outward behavior is the same regardless.
When someone wanders for healthy reasons, it is an endeavor worth celebrating. One can wander in order to grow as a person. This type of itchy feet is good for a person who is in need of self discovery. By breaking from the things they are familiar with in order to meet the world where they are at and explore what it has to offer, they are expanding their identity and their scope. This is commendable. Often, people who do this are labeled unfairly as not having direction or lacking focus. This is a small minded estimation of a person who wanders in order to grow and reflects poorly on the person passing the judgment.
The unhealthy version of wanderlust is the case where a person is running from something, and cannot hold still for fear that it will catch up to them. This type of itchy feet ends up being destructive to a person’s behavior. Running from life circumstances is often the result of trauma or of dysfunction that entered a person’s life early on. Travel can be therapeutic for a time for this type of person, but ultimately, they will need to face the past they are running from, either with the help of their support system of the help of a professional counselor.
The expression “Not all who wander are lost” aptly acknowledges both types of people, and illustrates that not everyone who wanders does it for the same reasons. This is important to appreciate. The next time your friend or family member who is prone to wandering and traveling sets out for the horizon, give them a fair estimation of why they are traveling.