If you follow country music, you know that one of its big stars was Merle Haggard, who died this year. In Merle’s words, “Dying! Everybody’s doing it.” He was one of these no-nonsense country music guys, whom some of us remember from his early hit, “I’m an Okie from Muskogee”. He went on to great fame and fortune as he sang with the best all over the world. Fame can bring you a lot of things, but not always happiness or fulfillment. If you put his life under a magnifying glass, you can see that much of his life was one of struggle and upheaval. In a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine entitled “Merle Haggard’s Final Years” I discovered that in his last decade the “country icon” found solace on his ranch, but he stayed restless to the end.
I was taken by one quote in that article: “I have been everywhere, but I have seen nothing.”, which made me think about my own life because I have been to a few places myself. It saddens me to think of a person of Haggard’s stature who has the luxury of travel but never took advantage of what travel can do for you. Travel can remake you, change you, challenge you, and open your mind to so many things.
Today we live in a world where everyone is rather suspicious of each other, especially when it comes to nationality, religion, culture, and race. I have found in my own life that when I meet people even of my same persuasion – i.e., religion, nationality, etc. – my initial personal profiling of them can change. I find myself understanding and even appreciating them more. Travel to me ratchets this up on so many levels. I have found that going to the Middle East as many times as I have has been an education in itself.
Travel does many things for you, and I have to agree with Rick Steves that traveling becomes a political act. You represent your country wherever you go, and you can’t help but leave your comfort zone when you travel to new and distant parts of the world. My experiences have indicated to me that people you think of as suspicious can be wonderful and hospitable to you and you to them when you actually see them and meet them.
I have experienced the hospitality of people around the world. I recall being a bit fearful and afraid when I was in Damascus, and a soldier invited us into his home. I was nervous about accepting an invitation from such a person, as Syria was then (and still is, of course) a military state. The visit to his home turned out to be wonderful, and he was so pleased and proud to host us. That story has been repeated in so many other places, like Hebron on the West Bank; Fez, Morocco; and Cairo, Egypt.
During these dark times of mistrust, racism and rejection of whole swaths of people, I simply have to reiterate what St. Paul says in the Book of Galatians: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free; neither male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I find this both challenging and liberating.