In our accomplishment-obsessed culture, the best thing you can be is exceptional. To be ordinary is to be a loser. Think about it. Who do we most revere: the everyday average Joe or glittery movie stars and billionaire CEOs? The fact is we worship “great” men and only study the monumental moments of mankind in our history books.
Like the tragic casualty of the American Dream, Jay Gatsby, we have grand visions for our futures: to write the next Great American Novel, to lead nations, to found multi-million dollar companies, to make revolutionary medical breakthroughs. When we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we gave only the most ambitious answers: to be the first woman president of the United States, to be cowboys, to be astronauts, to be world-famous ballerinas. We never aspired to ordinary jobs. After all, who would want to be a store clerk or mail man when you could be a rock star or a chef at a five star restaurant?
In his illuminating A More Exciting Life, the most recent edition to the School of Life series, Alain de Botton explains that though our culture thinks success consists of “sports cars, tropical islands, fame, an exalted destiny, first-class air travel and being very busy,” true success is often far less exciting. To illustrate his notion of authentic success, he uses the example of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Much like 18th century French painter Jean Baptiste Chardin, who preferred bowls of fruit to grand palaces and English statesmen, Vermeer found beauty in the simplest of scenes and most ordinary places: a quiet street, a girl reading at the window, a maid pouring milk.
By conferring dignity on the commonplace, Vermeer reminds us that even the most “unremarkable” lives are worthwhile. It might, he seems to suggests, be just as noble to make dinner for our lover as it is to sail the seven seas or rule over a kingdom. We don’t have to achieve great things to be lovable. It is enough to merely maintain a loving marriage over many decades; to tenderly play with our children; to keep an orderly home; to laugh often; to savor good wine; to create for its own sake; to connect with other beautiful souls; to generally be good and gracious; to listen sympathetically to a struggling friend; and to give our every task our heartfelt attention.
As de Botton charmingly concludes, once we overcome the pressure to be somebody, we realize “life’s true luxuries might comprise nothing more or less than simplicity, quiet friendship based on vulnerability, creativity without an audience, love without too much hope or despair, hot baths and dried fruits and the odd sliver of very dark chocolate.”
In our hurried lives, we rarely have time for reflection. From the moment we rise from our beds, we’re rushing to the next thing: the next email, the next phone call, the next board meeting, the next subway station. Our lives embody what the ancients called the vita activa, the path of action, rather than the vita contemplativa, the path of reflection. When we do carve out time for contemplation, it’s usually to weigh the pros and cons of practical decisions: we might spend several weeks researching the purchase of a new car, many years deciding upon the right career. Yet we devote almost no time to what ancient philosophers believed was the most important goal of all: understanding ourselves.
In his insightful field guide, A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, be more pessimistic, prioritize small pleasures, lengthen our life, and listen to our boredom, beloved philosopher behind the School of Life, Alain de Botton, suggests we can only find contentment if we truly know ourselves. Rather than take the time to define our own tastes, he argues most of us “assume that what will work for others will work for us too.”
We most certainly are not other people.
While many might enjoy the bright lights and blaring electronic music of a dance club, we’d much rather spend our Saturday night cozying up in bed with a cup of chamomile tea and a good book.
While some might rejoice in the excitement of an evening with strangers, we despise dinner parties and would rather get a root canal than have to ask, yet again, “so what do you do?”.
And while some might love the effortless model-off-duty look of athleisure, we prefer heels and dresses to sneakers and sweatshirts.
Artists— more than anyone— can teach us how to know and be who we are. According to de Botton, what we call a great artist is someone who has the strength to “discover and then stay faithful” to themselves. Van Gogh, Andy Warhol: each was committed to their own aesthetic, their own vision— regardless of anyone else. Did Picasso sanitize the strange shapes and brutal anti-war imagery of “Guernica” to have more commercial appeal? Did he abandon his monstrous bull and dying soldiers for a classic bowl of fruit and pretty daffodils? No, he refused to paint in a way that was more traditional. Picasso— like all artists— uncompromisingly defended his own point-of-view.
All of us are artists of the everyday: we get to make our lives as beautiful as we want. Instead of mindlessly follow the masses (go to sweaty dance clubs, engage in empty-headed chatter between bites of spinach quiche, spend hundreds of dollars on trendy Lululemon pants and sneakers), we— like Picasso— can refuse to conform to convention and discover what genuinely gives us pleasure.
Imagine a first date. We look lovingly across a candlelit dinner as a sharply-dressed man in a pinstriped suit plays the piano. What makes the evening so charming is not the romance of the music or our glass of Merlot but the fact that our potential paramour is endlessly curious about us. Where did we grow up? What’s our favorite book? our favorite film? Where would we live if we could live anywhere in the world?
We should adopt a similarly inquisitive attitude toward ourselves.
What kind of work do we enjoy? Do we feel happiest when we’re collaborating with people or working alone? Do we like using our hands or find gratification in the intellectual challenge of solving complex problems?
What are the most important qualities of a romantic partner? charm? intelligence? ambition? a good sense of humor? emotional intelligence? empathy and understanding? a willingness to examine their own issues? Is it important that our partner can provide financial security? that he/she has a 401k and a stable job?
How do we most want to spend our weekends? Browsing a book store? Going hiking? Having a midday picnic? Would we rather spend our Friday night baking a cranberry apple pie or hitting the hottest club? Is our ideal Saturday morning an early yoga class or a ritzy mimosa brunch?
What sort of books do we pull off the shelves? Fiction or non-fiction? Bloody true crime or heart-racing thrillers? Are we obsessed with trashy paperback novels or do we exclusively read New York Times bestsellers?
What is our dream destination: meditating on a hilltop in Thailand or leading the dolce vita in Rome? How would we like to spend our getaway: doing daring deeds like climbing mountains and swimming with sharks or lounging on a beach in a tropical paradise? Do we prefer every hour of our itinerary to be jam packed with action and activity or do we like to have a few aimless hours to sunbathe in our swimsuits? Would we rather explore magical cenotes in Cancun or appreciate Italian renaissance art in the Louvre?
As de Botton so succinctly sums up, “which of our hitherto stray or guilty pleasures might we dare begin to focus and anchor our days around? What might we learn to say no to and, in contrast, to emphasize going forward?”
What is luxury? To some, luxury is synonymous with chandeliers, caviar and champagne. To others, luxury calls to mind diamonds and pearls. To still others, it’s wrapped in fancy cars and fur stoles.
Regardless of how we conceive of luxury, most of us believe the “good life” is something reserved for other people. Only the wealthy can bear the expense of a $10,000 a night villa and afford Christian Louboutin shoes and Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label. How could we, ordinary common people with five figure salaries and overdue credit card bills, ever taste luxury’s celebratory bubbles.
In his eye-opening A More Exciting Life, paradigm-shifting British philosopher Alain de Botton argues we don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to pamper ourselves. Anyone can elevate the everyday regardless of the status of their bank account. “We too often forget,” de Botton writes, “especially on our sadder and more restricted days…that the core pleasures of luxury also exist in small forms that can be accessed at a far more manageable cost.”
Luxury doesn’t have to be a first-class plane ticket or a taffeta bungalow— it can be a bottle of perfume, a sleek black and white candle, an impossibly soft pair of cashmere socks, a silk robe. Luxury can be as affordable as an ivy plant for the windowsill, as simple as adding freshly shaved chocolate to our hot cocoa.
Are many luxurious things beyond our bank account?
Of course, obviously most of us can’t justify daily massages and summers along the Amalfi coast but that doesn’t mean we can’t find similar qualities of pleasure and beauty in our lives as they’re constituted now.
Say we want Yves Saint Laurent’s latest shoulder bag because it captivates us with its smooth black calfskin and streamlined design. We might not be able to afford its hefty $2,000 price tag, but we can find just as much elegance and sophistication in the brand’s lipstick for $38.99.
Or maybe we long for the immaculately designed multi-million dollar homes in Vogue and Elle. Rather than max out our credit cards, we can find small ways to elevate our home. Love the clean, simple lines of mid-century modern design? We might not be able to afford a vintage velvet coach or an entirely new dining table but we can certainly treat ourselves to a Picasso print or a chic 1960s vase from our local thrift store.
After an exhausting few months of work, we might dream of getting away for awhile— to a remote cabin in the woods, perhaps, or a serene Greek spa. We might not be able to bake in a sauna in Santorini but we can recreate some semblance of a spa in our own homes: we can light candles, pour ourselves our finest glass of wine, play a soothing Beethoven sonata and submerge ourselves in a blissful bath of sweet-scented bubbles. If we want to restore our bodies and replenish our souls— de Botton suggests— we don’t have to flock to a Greek spa halfway across the world; we can transform our bathroom into an oasis of calm as long as we pay attention to detail.
But all this begs the question: isn’t a love of luxury materialistic? showy and superficial? Aren’t there more important things we should concern ourselves with, the declining middle class, for example, or the impending threat of global warming or the millions of starving children across the world?
Though our culture condemns the pursuit of pleasure as hopelessly shallow (if not downright immoral), we should prioritize luxury for the sole reason that it can comfort and console. Life rarely goes as it’s supposed to: our marriage ends, we never achieve our dream of becoming a Broadway star. Our day-to-day is defined by great catastrophes— death, divorce— and seemingly small but equally dispiriting difficulties— a self-centered mother, a moody sister, a demanding boss. During the span of a single day, we have to endure countless disappointments and humiliations: we might get beat out for a promotion, leave the office and find we got a $200 parking ticket, lose our favorite coat, and return home only to be the object of our husband’s derision and ridicule.
Because the world cares nothing for us, we must be kind and care for ourselves. A glass of champagne or Gucci loafers won’t completely cure our ills but they can certainly cheer us when life is cruel.
British philosopher Alain de Botton adds one more reason to the list of why we should write and draw. In his infinitely insightful The Art of Travel, Botton argues making art can aid us in better appreciating our travels. In one of my favorite chapters, Botton suggests artist and art critic John Ruskin can teach us to preserve beauty. In normal life, if we encounter a thing of particular beauty— a pristine blue sky, a field of golden poppies, a quiet suburban street dappled in spring sunlight— we might note that the scene is rather lovely but never become fully conscious of its many aesthetically-pleasing qualities. The result? We only ever experience beauty fleetingly.
If we want a more enduring experience of beauty, we should take out a pen and paper and get drawing. Ruskin, who wrote several instructive books on the craft and taught drawing between 1856-1860, argues art is just as essential as languages and arithmetic. “The art of drawing,” he writes, is of “more real importance to the human race than that of writing and should be taught to every child just as writing is.”
Why is Ruskin so passionate about art? What is the point of learning to sketch? Do you really need to understand the principles of color, line and composition? Certainly painting isn’t as important as knowing the alphabet or basic math.
For Ruskin, art is invaluable because it rouses us from our usual stupor of inattention. By requiring us to stop and study our subject, art sharpens our powers of observation. If we look closely at a cherry blossom tree, for instance, we start to see it more clearly: its petals— which were once just a blur of pink— become more defined. They’re not just a plain pink, we realize, they’re a delicate pink and their edges fade to white.
When we travel somewhere, we should therefore make an attempt to draw our surroundings. Even if our “art” is as unsophisticated as a kindergartner’s crayon sketch of stick figures and trees, the exercise will be enlightening. In trying to capture the gothic grandeur of St Mark’s Basilica, we will be able to see— truly see— its gold mosaics and breathtaking architecture. On the other hand, if we rush past to feed pigeons on the plaza, we won’t appreciate its beauty as profoundly.
Not only did Ruskin recommend we draw pictures of our travels, he suggested we record them in a diary. As dedicated diarist and fashion icon Anais Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospect.” By attempting to capture what we see and hear and smell in writing, we a) feel these sensations more strongly and b) cement our impressions in our memory.
When we document our observations, we should be as precise as possible. As Botton writes, “We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it.” Rather than simply describe the weather in Rome as “pleasant” and the sightseeing as “wonderful,” we want to paint a picture. Inexact, catch-all adjectives like “pleasant” and “wonderful” offer a value judgement without providing any real, concrete sensory details. What— exactly— was so “pleasant” about the weather in Rome? Was the autumn air warm without being sweltering like it is in summer? Did a balmy breeze blow every morning through our window? Or were our romantic evenings strolling through Piazza Navona inviting and invigorating, slightly chilly without being uncomfortably cold? Ultimately, our experience of beauty is directly proportional to the precision of our description: the deeper our descriptions, the deeper our experience. To fossilize our impressions of a place in the sediment of memory, Botton— and Ruskin— advise we ask ourselves questions and strive for specificity:
“We were all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word-paintings. A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt. Rather than rest with the idea that a lake was pretty, we were to ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations? What is a better word for it than big?’ The finished product might not then be marked by genius, but at least it would have been motivated by a search for authentic representation of an experience.”
Why do we feel attracted to some places and not others? Why— for example— do we find Las Vegas repulsive but adore San Francisco? British philosopher Alain de Botton would assert San Francisco has more allure because it has been romanticized in everything from Beat poetry to hard-boiled detective novels. The scorching desert sun and whir of slot machines on the strip don’t possess the same charm because Las Vegas hasn’t been glamorized in as many art forms. A place is only appealing— de Botton would say— if it has been rendered in paintings and celebrated in novels.
In many ways, artists help us see more clearly. Different artists are guides to different things. Chardin, for example, teaches us to see the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary— a leg of lamb, a man reading, a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread, a blue and white vase— while Cezanne instructs us in the loveliness of baskets of apples and Monet in the exquisite color and light of water lilies. Before Chardin, we never thought so much aesthetic pleasure could be derived from something as simple as a commonplace kitchen. But after seeing “The Kitchen Maid,” we realize that even a maid can possess dignity.
In his endlessly interesting The Art of Travel, which illuminated how new places can inspire new thoughts and how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, Botton demonstrates how art can make us appreciate our travels more deeply. At the beginning of Chapter VII “On Eye-Opening Art,” Botton visits a few friends in Provence, a destination which conjures romantic images of lavender fields and olive trees. Despite its reputation as a place of unbelievable beauty, Botton finds Provence less than picturesque: the olive trees look “stunted, more like bushes than trees,” while the wheat fields evoke the “flat, dull expanses of south-eastern England where [he] had attended a school and been unhappy.”
It is only after reading a book on Van Gogh that he begins to become more attentive to his surroundings. Van Gogh, who moved to the south of France in 1888, told his brother he left Paris for Arles for two reasons: “because he had wanted to paint the south” and because he had wanted, through his work, to help other people to “see” it.
Through his careful attention, Van Gogh does— indeed— succeed in helping Botton see Provence. One clear morning as he sits on the terrace with a pain au chocolat, Botton sees two towering cypresses. Why had he never noticed them? And why had these unremarkable, rather strange trees, which were once relegated to the background, entered the foreground of his consciousness and become the central object of contemplation?
Botton credits Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” with his newfound appreciation. Though Botton has obviously seen cypresses before, it is only after studying Van Gogh that he recognizes their unique movement, their surreal shape, their dark green color against the golden wheat landscape. In 1888 and 1889, the artist had been obsessed with the trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote his brother, “it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a quality of distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.”
Because Van Gogh cherished these trees, he devoted himself to expressing his vision and produced what are perhaps the most innovative paintings of the 19th century. His affection for his subject inspires Botton to look more closely. With Van Gogh as his guide, the cypress is no longer a straggly mass of green— it’s a wonder of color and harmony. Oscar Wilde once said there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. With equal wit, Botton remarks, “There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them.”
Van Gogh also awakens Botton’s unappreciative eyes to the glorious colors of Provence’s Mediterranean landscape. In a passage of rich description, the philosopher paints an idyllic picture of the French countryside:
“The mistral, blowing along the Rhine valley from the Alps, regularly clears the skies of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white. At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate. With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat…The combination of cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colors.”
In the 19th century, most artists depicted Provence in soft complementary colors like blues and earthy browns. Van Gogh, to borrow the words of Botton, was “incensed by this neglect of the landscape’s natural color scheme.” “The majority of [painters] because they are not colorists…do not see yellow, orange or sulfur in the South,” the artist once complained, “and they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.” Van Gogh revolted against popular conceptions of Provence and soaked his canvases in bright primary colors, juxtaposing them in striking ways: red poppies next to a yellow farmhouse, hunter’s green olive trees against clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
Van Gogh’s consideration for color teaches Botton to see with more sensitivity. Before being exposed to the post-impressionist painter, Botton’s capacity to see was barely better than a blind man’s. He couldn’t understand why people called Provence’s hills “picturesque”— to him, they were an ugly, dry, dirty brown, no different from the hills in California or England. But after seeing Van Gogh’s “Orange Roof” and “Meadow with Poppies,” his bland surroundings become more brilliant. “Everywhere I looked, I could see primary colors in contrast,” he writes, “Besides the house was a violet-colored field of lavender next to a yellow field of wheat. The roofs of the buildings were orange against a pure blue sky. Green meadows were dotted with red poppies.”
All in all, Botton’s The Art of Travel reminds us of the irreplaceable role of art and the artist. More than just momentarily entertain or ravish our senses, a poem or painting encourages us to cherish what usually escapes our notice. In our normal, hurried lives, we move at such a velocity that the magnificence of the world barely registers. But when we gaze upon “Starry Night,” we can sit and savor the surreal Saint Remy sky and therefore become more conscious.
Travel is always to some degree disappointing because we romanticize our destination without having experienced it in reality. Before we depart for Venice, for example, our conception of the floating city comes from picture-perfect postcards and things we’ve seen in movies. We imagine our trip will consist of quaint cobblestone streets and hand-crafted cappuccinos at Cafe Florian, the world’s oldest cafe. As we indulge in the Caffè Anniversario 300, a decadent, distinctly Italian blend of espresso, amaretto, hazelnut, and chocolate, we imagine we’ll gaze upon the gothic beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica and nibble on salmon and spinach quiche. With a bubbly glass of Prosecco in hand later that evening, we’ll feel like Venetian royalty.
Sadly, our image of Venice differs drastically from its reality. Though the floating city does shimmer on the magical blue green waters of the Adriatic Sea, our glamorized conception of Venice neglected the tacky tourist traps, the suffocating sun and the notoriously crowded streets of Italy. In postcards, cobblestone streets were a charming artifact of the old world— in reality, they make it maddeningly difficult to maneuver our luggage and walk in heels. And though Cafe Florian does, indeed, take our breath away with its splendid baroque art and adorable pastries, it also costs 80 euros for a single coffee and a few tea cakes.
Sight-seeing especially underscores the difference between reality and fantasy. In real life, the Colosseum and the Louvre aren’t nearly as impressive or interesting. Indeed, the world’s great landmarks are often dreadfully boring. Though the Colosseum once hosted epic gladiatorial battles for thousands of spectators, today it’s a mecca for overweight tourists in Hawaiian shirts and flip flop slippers. And though the Mona Lisa is perhaps the world’s most famous painting, in real life, it’s a rather unremarkable woman sitting simply— nothing more.
No one examines the disappointments of travel with more charming British cynicism than philosopher Alain de Botton. In his indispensable volumeThe Art of Travel, which explained why we traveland how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, de Botton shares his own disenchanting experiences abroad. After being invited to Madrid for a conference, he decides to extend his trip a few days to go sightseeing. But on Saturday morning, he wakes up in his hotel and doesn’t want to get out of bed despite Madrid’s grand cathedrals and breathtaking monuments. His guidebooks glare at him from his bedside table as if to chastise him for his laziness. How— they seem to gasp— can he pass up Plaza Mayor for a king size mattress?
Eventually, de Botton wills himself of bed to explore the city. As he sits under the Spanish sun in Plaza Provincia, his guidebook instructs him in the bland facts of his surroundings: “The Neo-classical facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande is by Sabatini but the building itself, a circular edifice with six radial chapels and a large dome 33m/108 ft wide, is by Francisco Cabezas.” Much like a history teacher who recites the important figures and monumental dates of WWII without weaving those facts into a compelling story, most guidebooks fail to fan the flames of our curiosity. De Botton’s travel guide offers an abundance of information but is as intriguing as a dictionary. After all, who cares about Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande’s precise mathematical measurements? As de Botton confesses candidly, “Unfortunately for the traveler, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve. There is usually nothing affixed to them at all, or if there is it tends to be the wrong thing. There was a lot fixed to the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de San Francisco— but it hardly helped me be curious about it.”
Ironically, travel is often one thing: boring. Despite the novelty of medieval architecture and cobblestone streets, a foreign land can be just as uninteresting as our own city. Travel guides and museum placards are partially to blame. Rather than capture the horror and chaos of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a placard at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art will merely mention its history (painted in response to the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany), its date of creation (1937), and its technique (oil on canvas). Such dry facts are about as relevant to our real lives as the slope-intercept formula y= mx +b.
De Botton soon realizes that if he wants his trip to be more than a yawns-worthy visit to a museum, he has to find a way to make sight-seeing— to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s term— “life enhancing.” No matter how passionately a travel guide might argue for the significance of a Picasso painting, it will mean little to us unless we give it meaning. Instead of simply accept expert opinion and agree that “Guernica” is one of the most moving anti-war paintings, we should ask ourselves how it can be meaningful to us personally. What can it teach us about how to live? How can it illuminate some aspect of the human experience? We must ask thoughtful questions and be active rather than passive. As de Botton writes, “For the person standing before the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, a question might be, ‘Why have people felt the need to build churches?’ or even, ‘Why do we worship God?'” From there, a tourist might wonder why there are different churches in different places or why humans invented religion at all.
Lesson? For the small seed of curiosity to sprout, we must nurture it. Or as de Botton would say, the Neo-classical facade of a Spanish church or a mid-century Cubist painting can only be interesting if we’re interested.
No matter how exciting our destination, we usually look forward to the airport with dread. To make our impossibly early boarding time, we have to wake up at 5 in the morning; once we arrive, we have to find parking and navigate impossibly long security lines. If we’re departing from the airport of a major city— Beijing or Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow— finding our gate can feel like a journey in itself. Like a Homeric hero, we have to overcome many obstacles on the route to our goal: rude TSA agents, labyrinthine corridors, incomprehensible airport directories, confusing shuttle schedules. As we rush to find our terminal, we hear the sounds of shrieking children and luggage rolling along linoleum floors. Over the intercom, a kindly voice reminds a Mr. Anderson to please come to gate 4B as his 8:45 plane is about to depart. Though we’re trying to hurry (after all, we don’t want to be Mr. Anderson and keep our flight waiting), a gray-haired couple in their late 70s is walking unimaginably slow directly in front of us. When we finally maneuver around them and get to our terminal, we realize we’re in the wrong one: we should be on the other side of the airport. “God damn it,” we mutter to ourselves. Frantic, we race past tourists in fanny packs and towering carts of luggage as if we were Olympians trying to make it through an obstacle course.
We eventually arrive. Despite our worries that we’d miss our flight, we still have over an hour to kill before our departure time. If stress is the dominant emotion while finding your gate, boredom is the dominant emotion while waiting to board. With nothing else to occupy us, the hands of time grind to a halt: seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours. To pass the time, we people watch and mindlessly scroll through our phones. When that no longer entertains us, we flip through magazines at Hudson News and grab a Starbucks. Most of us imagine the airport is a hell of torturous boredom and anxiety; however, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, the same sharp intellect who has written so compellingly on love, status anxiety, and emotional health, it is also a stirring symbol of possibility and hope. In his elegant travel guide The Art of Travel, the same volume that suggested we should travel to new places to have new thoughts and carefully observe to better appreciate our travels abroad, de Botton asserts the airport is as life-affirming as Molly Bloom’s ecstatic cries of “yes” at the end of Ulysses.
Ultimately, the airport reminds us that if our life feels stagnant— if we’re dissatisfied with our jobs, if we’re bored of our husbands— things don’t have to remain as they are. Too often, we imagine we’re “stuck” in our lives, that today will be exactly like tomorrow. But for a few hundred dollars, we can buy a plane ticket and move to an entirely different country and become entirely different people. The airport’s endless list of departures to romantic, far-flung places— London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Budapest, Rome— isn’t just a catalog of cities: it’s a portal into other possible lives, other possible worlds. In the same way that we can board a flight to Santorini and completely change our surroundings, we can alter what seems unalterable. If we’re unhappy as a San Francisco computer engineer, the list of departures seems to suggest, we can be an Oxford PhD or a Viennese pastry chef. Nothing is beyond our capacity to change: we can get a divorce if we’re tired of being belittled by our abusive husband, we can quit our jobs and start our own business. Our lives are a novel that can always be rewritten. Or as de Botton writes with equal parts wisdom and wit:
“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure. Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul. Warsaw, Seattle, Rio. The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich, Paris.’ The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off somewhere.”
Why travel? The actual act of traveling— hailing a cab, boarding a bus, riding a train— is exhausting. The airport is my personal conception of hell, even more so than the DMV. The harsh, florescent lights, the disgusting food, the interminable lines, the endless waiting. Why endure the hell of Heathrow to visit the beautiful white sand beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the sun-soaked hills of Tuscany? What is it, exactly, that compels us to voyage to far-flung places? Do we travel merely for rest and relaxation or can travel have a deeper philosophical meaning? Can sipping a cappuccino in Rome or wind-surfing in Fiji teach us something?
In his charming, incomparably insightful The Art of Travel, British philosopher Alain de Bottonsuggests traveling to new places enlarges our perspective and inspires us to think differently. Though it might seem indulgent to reserve two weeks of every year for a holiday, nothing is more vital to our mental and emotional well-being. At home, we often feel stuck: in our monotonous jobs, in our passionless marriages. Travel makes us realize we can change our lives. Just as our plane can begin on the ground but soar through the skies only a few seconds later, we can always start over. On a plane, we’re reminded anything is possible: one morning, we can wake up in gloomy grey London only to arrive eight hours later in clear, cloudless Barbados. As de Botton writes, the plane can “inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives.”
Most of the time we’re occupied with the trivial: did our neighbor across the street see when we tripped and fell? how were we going to pay this month’s credit card bill? what should we make for tonight’s dinner? why hasn’t our package arrived yet? did it get lost in the mail?
We rarely, if ever, draw things to scale. A fight about dirty dishes isn’t just another ordinary lover’s quarrel— it’s a Shakespearean tragedy filled with tragic flaws and tragic heroes. “How can my husband not wash his dish right away? He never appreciates me!” we declare melodramatically, “Maybe I should leave him. He’s a selfish pig!” If we get a flat tire on the way to work, it isn’t merely inconvenient, an unfortunate way to start the day— it’s indisputable proof that the whole universe is against us and life isn’t worth living.
But when we takeoff from San Francisco International Airport, we gain invaluable perspective. In a few minutes, the spectacular lights of the city shimmer and recede into the sea, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge disappears behind a mysterious mist. As we climb into the sky— 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet— our lower Haight apartment gets smaller and smaller until it’s as insignificant as a period.
Among the clouds, we recover our sense of proportion. In a few days, it won’t matter that our husband was inconsiderate and forgot to wash his dish or that a flat tire made us late to an important meeting. We are one of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants, our planet is but an inconsequential speck. Who cares if we tripped in front of our neighbor? If we ordered take out one Wednesday night instead of cooked a proper dinner? A Shakespearean tragedy is a girl gone missing or a baby dying or a genocide or a world war or a gruesome murder— not a delayed package or an overdue credit card bill. At 42,000 feet, our problems seem more surmountable.
In ancient Greece, philosophers believed there was a direct relationship between the macrocosm, the cosmos or world as a whole, and the microcosm, the individual. Similarly, de Botton asserts the outer world corresponds to our inner one. “There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places,” he writes with his trademark wit. Just as we have more “a ha” moments when we leave the customary setting of our desks, we have more novel, interesting thoughts in novel, interesting places. Wandering through an open air market in Egypt among the exotic smell of spices and incense, we can come up with more imaginative ideas than if we were simply strolling through heads of lettuce at our local supermarket.
“What ails us?” is the first question we should ask whenever we book a plane ticket. The destination we select should remedy our affliction. If we’re feeling overwhelmed by the commotion of the city, for example, we might seek out quiet places: a charming cabin nestled among California redwoods, a quaint fairy tale cottage in an English hamlet. On the other hand, if we’re feeling cramped in our tiny New York City apartment, we might journey to large landscapes: Yosemite, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon. Under a broad blue sky, we can have broader thoughts. How can we not feel expansive in the presence of the breathtaking beauty of El Capitan, 200 foot tall sequoias, and majestic million year old red rock?
In our normal lives, we are confined to our normal identity but on a plane to Dubai or a train through the French countryside, we can get reacquainted with our authentic selves. In many ways, home limits us; as de Botton observes, “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.”
Unlike in real life, where we’re often hurrying from one thing to the next, travel offers plenty of idle time to reflect, be it at a grand chandelier-adorned subway station in Moscow or a bus stop twenty minutes outside of Stockholm. With nothing to do but gaze outside our window, we can daydream and wonder, ponder and puzzle. Where would we most want to live if we could live anywhere in the world? What do we imagine is our purpose in life? What have we always wanted to do? Learn Italian or do the tango? Usually the din of daily life is too deafening to hear the answers but on a serene train ride through the Swiss Alps, we can finally make out the soft whispers of the true self.
With his rare ability to find meaning in the mundane, de Botton claims an unfamiliar hotel room can also free us from familiar ways of thinking. Have you ever wondered why sex in a hotel is always more satisfying? Unlike in our everyday bedroom where we’re constantly distracted by the nagging demands of domesticity— whining children, dirty dishes, dirty laundry— in a hotel room among out-of-the-ordinary objects like mini shampoo bottles, individually wrapped soaps, room service menus and paper view TV, we can rediscover our forgotten sexuality. In a new setting, we can see our husband in new ways: no longer is he a partner in the joint business of running a household or, worse, a roommate, he is our lover, our other half, our soul mate. Though we’re usually too tired to give each other a peck on the cheek, in a hotel far from home, we have the irrepressible urge to rip off each other’s clothes and kiss amorously beneath the sheets. A hotel room is an aphrodisiac that rekindles our desire, our longing. So if you want to reignite the spark in your relationship, de Botton would say, exchange handcuffs and kink for a mini bar and fresh towels in a foreign city.
Most travel guides are compendiums of top ten lists that instruct us where to go. Such books are undoubtedly helpful (after all, how else would we find the most idyllic view in Santorini or the best dim sum in San Francisco?) but they don’t teach us how to make the most of our travels. The Art of Travel is a must-have in every tourist’s backpack for the very reason that it doesn’t include definitive lists of “must see” monuments in Rome: while practical guides like Lonely Planet offer invaluable advice on what hotel to book and when to visit, de Botton’s one-of-a-kind volume illuminates why we travel, how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, and how to preserve the fleeting beauty we encounter once we return home.
Why do we feel pain? Evolutionarily, pain has been essential to our survival. When our Neanderthal ancestors suffered a brutal wound from a saber-toothed tiger or pricked their finger on a thorn, their pain receptors sent a message straight to their cerebral cortex: “Ouch, that hurts!” The result? Over many millennia, homo sapiens learned to associate pain with high-risk activities like hunting for caribou on the African veldt and chasing rabbits into a rose bush. Pain is a distress signal: when we hear the sudden shriek of its alarm bells, we know to stop. The child who ignores his mother’s warning and touches a hot stove, for example, will learn stove = burn. Pain is our body’s way of protecting us.
But when we’re crushed by the magnitude of a colossal loss like the death of a loved one or a terrible break up, we want one thing and one thing only— for the pain to stop. “When will it end?” is the most common question among the bereaved and brokenhearted. “A month from now? six months from now? a year?” We want to calculate grief with the certainty of a math theorem, to compress it into a manageable slot in our calendar.
“How long does it take to get over someone?” I surveyed friends and countless advice columns after I broke up with my boyfriend of ten years. Some proposed tired-and-true formulas: “Half the length of the relationship.” “Fuck,” I thought to myself, “that means I’ll be feeling this devastated/inconsolable/not-quite-normal for another five years!” Others offered concrete lengths of time as if grief were an independent rather than dependent variable in an algebra problem: “You just need a year,” several friends reassured me in the desperate dimness of our local dive bar.
Certainly a year was more bearable than five but it still sounded intolerable. How could I withstand another 365 days of pitying glances from concerned family and friends? How could I cope with another 365 mornings of an empty bed? How could I endure another 52 unoccupied weekends where there were once movie nights and day trips and dog walks? In short, how could I go on?
The pain of a breakup is so excruciating because mementos of our former lover are everywhere: on the quiet neighborhood street along our normal walking route, among heads of cabbage at the grocery store. I felt my boyfriend’s absence when I opened the wrinkled pages of a beloved book and found the Rilke poem he wrote inside the front cover, when I chanced upon a mug he bought me in the cupboard. Standing in my kitchen, a peanut butter jar might remind me of an affectionate nickname we had for each other, a bottle of Absinthe might call to mind our first trip abroad. Driving along the jagged cliffs of Highway 1 on a breezy spring day, I’d recall us cruising along the same road and stopping at the beach to watch the sunset on a similar day many years before. The copy of The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway on my bookshelf incited feelings of sorrowful regret (“Would I ever find someone that thoughtful again?” I wondered) while the succulent near my kitchen window reminded me of his passion for the outdoors. At certain times of the week when we had traditionally done things together, there was a tragic disparity between the blissful past and lonesome, loveless present: Friday nights brought back dinners at our favorite Korean restaurant; Saturday afternoons, long, leisurely strolls through the park; weekday nights, reading in the sort of companionable silence only possible when you’re deeply in love.
Sometimes the pain of losing my boyfriend was a dull ache; other times it was a steady, relentless throb. On some days, it was a sudden, sharp twinge; on other days, it was a punch to the gut. Occasionally my pain was only a minor inconvenience like the sting of paper cut; more often, it had the stabbing intensity of a knife through the heart.
During those terrible months, I just wanted the suffering to stop. I was tired of feeling wretched all the time, tired of bursting into tears at the sound of a song. I longed for warm weather, cloudless blue skies, fields of chrysanthemums but I was engulfed in a winter storm. Bitter winds whipped my skin, temperatures dropped. Would I ever again behold the blossoms of spring, I wondered, or was I eternally condemned to this dark season of the soul?
In his 1923 masterwork, The Prophet, poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran suggests spring always arrives even if winter feels interminable. Rather than bolt from pain— or desensitize it with familiar vices such as pills or Pap’s Blue Ribbon or promiscuous sex in cheap motels and grimy bathroom stalls— Gibran advises we accept the lessons it has to teach us. Pain not only enlarges our hearts, it makes joy possible:
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.”
When we experience grief or loss, the first thing we do is feel sorry for ourselves. “Why, oh why,” we cry melodramatically, “is this happening to us?” Shattered and stunned, we look to the cosmos and curse the cruel, sadistic gods. What did we do to deserve such an unfortunate fate? How could life so heartlessly take away our husbands and jobs?
Instead of collapse into self-pity, Gibran asks us to remember that our trials and tribulations are gifts— not punishments— from God:
“Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”
Poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran ponders this puzzling paradox in The Prophet, his 1923 masterwork. Though we often want to escape the pain of distressing emotions— despair, heartbreak, anger, sadness, grief— we have to endure the wilderness to eventually arrive at the promised land of happiness and healing. As Gibran writes, in order to experience the ecstatic elation of joy, we must first experience the despondency of sorrow:
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”
Which is more powerful: joy or sorrow? comfort and calm or angst and anguish? bliss or hell? Gibran contends joy and sorrow are not irreconcilable antipodes— they’re two corresponding, if opposite, halves of the same whole:
“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”