7. Journeys are the midwives of Thought

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Alain de Botton Reading yet another book of Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel) my mind is arrested by :

"Journeys are the midwives of thought."

"Few places are more conductive to internal conversations" writes De Botton, "than moving planes, ships or trains."
"There is an almost quaint correlation"
he continues, "between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads : large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places."

I go along with this most elegantly expressed proposition, adding that long drives in a car are also most conductive to "internal conversations", moving along at similar speeds to De Botton's favourite thinking vehicle, the train.
Our home with all its familiar objects (furniture, decorations, ornaments) surrounding us daily (I agree with De Botton) are often holding us back, pinning us down to our smallest regular self. We need to escape this safe cocoon, in order to liberate our thoughts.

I personally believe that our "journeys" (escapes from our mundane self) can be as small as reading a book or as large as the life changing migration to another continent. My daily drives to the beach, local library or lunch, for example, are also stong urges within myself to get out of my self contained environment and free up my thoughts and feelings.   It depends very much on our individual character and need for personal growth how far we take this.

For me personal growth through new experiences and the thoughts and ideas they evoke are absolutely essential for my achievement of happiness and my fulfillment as a true human being. In consequence I have gone, and still go, all the way!
Seen within the context of personal growth the element of thought takes on a new and dominant role in my collection of "Factors for Happiness".

1. Health   2. Freedom   3. Thought   4. Sense of Purpose

5. Family   6. Friendship   7. Environment

In this regard Freedom, Environment and Friends are directly and most strongly affected.
In order to liberate our thoughts and advance our personal growth we take full advantage of our Freedom and change our Environment when we feel we become "stale" in a place.
We even leave our (sometimes dearest) Friends behind, because the environment of a constant set of friends also contains us within the one image we have of ourselves. With every move we make to a new place and different social environment (as I have experienced frequently throughout my life) we create an opportunity to reinvent our self. This is a liberating experience and most conductive to further personal growth.

Lounge at Martinshof Ornaments and art objects in our home
There appears to be a paradox concerning the ornaments and art objects with which we decorate our homes.
On the one hand, according to Stendhal ("Beauty is the promise of Happiness") their beauty contributes to our happiness, but on the other, according to De Botton ("Journeys are the midwives of Thought"), their familiarity (over time) holds us back within our smallest regular self, restricting our personal growth.

Although the point for many may perhaps be rather trivial, this has certainly not been so in my own case.
My mother was a hugely creative interior decorator and our home Martinshof was a shining example of her skills. So us children grew up in a wonderful visual environment that, I am sure, much contributed to our appreciation of art (and to our sense of geometrical balance between different objects) throughout our lives.
As soon as I entered my mid teens I started to help my mother in rearranging furniture and displays on a regular basis, because our home never remained looking the same for very long.

Our home in Newcastle When I was married I continued to be in charge of the interior decorating (with Antien's full consent) and the two of us spent lots of time collecting antiques from flea markets and farms in the country. In a sense this was for us a way to express our identity. Also, as I explained earlier, our own furniture, ornaments and art objects helped us and our children to feel at home, wherever we were during my life as a roaming geologist.

But when my mid life crisis hit and I split up with Antien, everything changed. As our two children remained with their mother we considered it best that all our furniture, ornaments, antiques etc. stay with them to giver them at least some sense of continuity to hang on to.   I personally also wanted to make a complete break from the past, and having these former treasured belongings no longer around me very much helped me to do that.

My possessions stripped to the bare necessities Initially I collected a few nicknacks for in my new flat right on the beach (in Adelaide), mainly coloured glass objects placed in the windows to let the light shine through it. But by the time I moved into my new house at the Sunshine Coast I kept only the absolute bare necessities (table, chairs, TV, office desk, bed) : austerity without any embellishment. I wanted to be able to see outside (through the large windows) onto nature without the eyes being distracted by trivial objects inside. This also gave me a clear sense of freedom.

The ultimate step came of course when I sold my house, gave most of my possessions to charity, and started living either in a tent or in my small cabin on the mango farm. I still appreciate (an feel happy because of) the beauty of art, ornaments, antiques, etc. but I no longer wish to posses them or be continuously surrounded by them. A complete 180° turnaround from my earlier life.

If my body and mind are kind to me and remain relatively intact untill my last breath (as they have been to most of my family), I envisage ending up living in a simple caravan, located perhaps on a caravan park along a Queensland beach somewhere.

Hunnebed near Rolde, Drenthe The Netherlands Europe : a living room decorated with its cultural objects
The same paradox is present at a very much larger scale. We can view Europe for example as a very large home or huge living room containing all the "objects" of its culture : architecture, customs, history, food, arts, etc. And we have a choice of either enjoying these as Stendhal objects of beauty stimulating our happiness, or as a De Botton environment of familiarity, holding back our personal growth.

Antien and I at the time (early 1960s) clearly went for the latter interpretation and it was this very notion that prompted us to leave Europe and migrate to Australia. Over the years however we have returned from time to time to enjoy brief periods of (and therefore much enhanced) Stendhal moments of happiness.

As I think about this another curious (not to say quirky) fact which has puzzled me for some time falls into place :
During my last year in Holland (1964-65) I was based in Assen completing my National service there. Here we regularly visited several of the many hunebedden in the region, ancient graves, remnants of an ancient culture 3,000 years (or more) ago.
We felt a peculiar affinity to these sites and often came there with friends on moonlit nights sitting on the stones drinking wine and chatting away. I now, some 55 years later, suddenly realise what this quite possibly was all about. We were (unconsciously) trying to escape the restricting familiarity of our modern European (Greek founded) culture, not in terms of space, but in terms of time !.

The above comments are of course equally valid for other peoples in their cultural environment : Americans in the USA, Japanese in Japan and Australians in Australia. The point is that one should escape one's own culture from time to time in order to grow more fully as a modern human being.

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Copyright © 2010 Michael Furstner