In previous posts I offered reasons why you should consider living and working overseas: intellectual excitement, international friendships, low-cost (sometimes even no-cost) travel, and a learning opportunity for young children, to name just a few. Well in this post I want to add another reason, possibly the most important one of all: Do it for yourself! Do it to bring deeper and more meaningful social, cultural, political, and spiritual values into your everyday life. Do it to become a better person.
Last week my wife and I saw the most popular show now running on Broadway: The Book of Mormon. It is a riotous, raucous, and hilarious musical comedy written by the team that created South Park. It tells the story of two young Mormon acolytes who go on a “working vacation” mission to Uganda to convert the locals. They arrive in Africa with an air of arrogance and cultural superiority so common to those who are certain they possess the truth. However, in addition to great music and outrageous humor, the play has a lot to say about how we can change and grow as individuals by living in a different culture and experiencing new ways of doing things. At the conclusion of the play the missionaries are learning from as well as teaching the villagers, and each group is sharing their unique customs and traditions with the other.
Well, similar change can happen to anyone who takes a working vacation, and it is one of the most important reasons to escape, however briefly, that comfortable “cocoon” we have created in our daily lives. One’s social and political outlook can be profoundly influenced as you not only expand your understanding of the world around you but also gain greater insight and empathy into what is happening right here at home.
For example, travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you more aware of the terrible societal damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial or tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt—both physical and spiritual—arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor can open one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our own society’s tolerance of abject poverty amidst widespread wealth.
One of the most common characteristics I have observed among individuals who fear differences–racial, religious, sexual–is that they rarely travel to places with a unique culture or experience distinct spiritual and religious practices. Simply put, they rarely venture outside that safe and often highly homogeneous cocoon. If they did they would come to understand, like those young Mormons, that there is no one “absolute religious truth” but rather many truths that we might want to experience, understand, and respect. They would learn, like those young Mormons, that the differences between people are far less important than the similarities. As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely.” Indeed, they do.