I love travel writing. The ability of narrative to transport me into another country or culture thrills me.
I tend towards reading light-hearted travelogues, like Hitching Rides with Buddha or The Sex Lives of Cannibals, but I’m finding that there’s deep value in more serious fare.
I picked up a book from the The Best American Travel Writing series because I thought it might be like the travel story anthology Not so Funny when it Happened, which contains some of the funniest writing I’ve ever read.
The Best American Travel Writing series is not, however, a collection of humourous travel tales. There are some light-hearted stories, but many of the accounts are pretty austere. Essays include trips to Rwanda, Bolivia, Cuba, Bulgaria, and India – and not the clean, shiny, touristy parts of these countries, but the squalid, corrupt parts that most tourists don’t see.
Tom Sleigh’s essay The Deeds hit me hardest. He wrote about Israel, Palestine, and the Palestinians living in Lebanon with a raw humaness that feels surprisingly non-partisan. Amidst the narrative, Sleigh brings up this idea that everyone involved in and affected by the conflict in the Middle East is a victim; that people can choose to see the grief of others and recognize that the people on the other side are victims as well. Compassion and understanding can arise from allowing for joint-suffering rather than portraying the other side as villainous This concept that plays out in less intense situations closer to home as well.
This quote stood out to me, particularly as I’d just had a mini-skirmish with someone where I felt victimized.
Once you refuse to see someone else’s grief and focus on your own grievance, it becomes far easier to reduce your rival victim to a villan — someone you need to protect yourself against and, if necessary harm before he can harm you.
~ Tom Sleigh
from The Deeds in The Best American Travel Writing 2009
In that mini-skirmish, I chose not to see the other person’s hardships and focus only on my own. I established an ‘us versus them’ scenario that meant the other person had to be the villan who was trying to destroy my way of life and impede my happiness (in a much more trivial way than in the Middle East), rather than a fellow victim. Although we were both victims in that neither of us were getting what we wanted.
That mental switch from seeing the other side as antagonistic and combattive to also victimized reminded me that there is room for both people to be suffering. Both sides can feel hurt, neglected, and frustrated. I do not have a monopoly on those emotions and someone else feeling the same way does not negate my hardship.
The next time a conflict arises with someone, I hope I’m able to avoid seeing them as the villan. To recognize their grievances and understand that they are not trying to worsen my life, but improve their own… exactly the same way I am.