Despite All the Evidence to the Contrary

I get asked a lot why I am so obsessed with travel. The answer varies from day to day, but I think the core of it remains the same: I travel because it reminds me how infinitely good the world is, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

If ever you were looking for one week to justify the argument that the world sucks, last week would seem to be it. The United States’ moral struggle with how to treat the most vulnerable in our midst (child migrants fleeing violence in Central America) was interrupted by the shocking news that a passenger jet was gunned down over Ukraine, only to be interrupted by the news that fighting has reached new levels of intensity and violence between the Israelis and Palestinians. I read a shocking story from my hometown about three teens who beat two homeless men to death by smashing their faces repeatedly with bricks. The world, for all intents and purposes, really seemed to suck last week.

What do we do when the world throws so much pain and darkness at us?

I think there is a tendency to want to retreat from it, to crawl under our covers and pull the blankets over our heads. Some may call this apathy, but I think it’s much more complex: we run not because we don’t care, but because we worry that we might care too much. So what do we do? In times like these, people like to talk about prayer—which reminds me of a story I once heard.

On the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, there was a rabbi in the crowd. He had lost his entire family to the Nazis, and upon moving to the United States took up the cause of civil rights for African Americans. He knew loss, suffering, and constant fear at a level I hope I won’t ever be able to imagine. Rather than retreat from the world, he sought to place himself right in the midst of its pain. On this particular march, the rabbi was asked if he had time to pray. “I prayed with my feet,” the rabbi replied. The message is simple enough to me: show up. No matter how hard, no matter how confused, the most important thing we can do to help another person, to honor the loss of life, is to show up and be a counter-protest to the senselessness that creates so much pain.

Photos like like these and this moving video bring tears to our eyes because they are reminders of our shared humanity. Yes, the Dutch, in their pain, have reminded us what the best of humanity looks like as tens of thousands of them line streets and overpasses, churches and public squares, to mourn in silence the loss of life.  And so we cry–for them, but also with them.

When I traveled in Bali, I was really overwhelmed with emotion at the typical Hindu greeting of Namaste, something I wrote about in a recent blog post. My favorite translation of this sacred greeting is that the divine in me recognizes the divine in the person in front of me. Take a moment and imagine that. What if we went into the world and with each person we encountered, no matter how much they annoyed us, no matter how much we disrespected their views or opinions, we said “Namaste” and really tried to mean it. Imagine looking into a stranger’s eyes and-no matter how hard it is-acknowledging that the divine really lives in them. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit who founded Homeboy Industries, the largest anti-gang program in the United States, always says that each person is better than their worst mistake. Are we willing to not just believe that, but to really, truly embrace living it?

My travels around the world time and time again have introduced me to the goodness that exists in the midst of so much loss and destruction. I’ve encountered the bad—I’ve been robbed, mugged, and cheated. And yet when I think back on my travels, those are never the memories that surface. Instead I am reminded of the generosity of countless strangers, and the way they changed my life. And while I’ve seen the suffering that poverty (both spiritual and material) can create, I have met some heroic people, rich and poor, who have made it their life’s mission to fight this poverty and the structures that create it.

I don’t mean to downplay the tragic events playing out on the international stage, but rather to pay homage to the good people who are victims in the middle of senseless violence. So pray with your feet, like the Dutch. Show up, even if you don’t know what you will do once you are there. Seek out the goodness and rest assured that as hard as it is to believe, the light is stronger and more abundant than the darkness in this world. And if enough of us do that, I’m convinced that in our own small but intimately meaningful way, we change the world, despite what often feels like evidence to the contrary.

Patrick Furlong directs immersion trips at Loyola Marymount University and runs a millennial travel blog called Two to Travel and Tango with his wife Laura.