I had the pleasure of hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates speak at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem in 2015. He was riding high from the overwhelming success of Between the World and Me, and temporarily relocated to Paris in the tradition of James Baldwin and other important African American authors.
During his writerly exile, Coates was besieged with questions about his decision to relocate, and addressed them during his live interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones. The answer disappointed some, but I loved it. In summary: he liked the cheese and the bread, but Paris is just a place.
I’m a fan of the grand gesture, and I have the outdated mailing addresses to prove it—I’ve relocated for opportunities, experiences, and most recently, to launch a media company. Sometimes in order to bring about important changes in our lives, these dramatic moves are useful. The grand gesture might involve leaving an unhealthy relationship, quitting a stressful job, or letting go of emotional baggage that no longer serves us.
The allure of elsewhere, however, calls to us like a siren song. The answers we’re seeking must be in Balinese yoga, Argentine tango, and Tanzanian hikes, right? I’m not so sure. The lessons in many spiritual texts and cultural myths suggest that everything we need can be found right where we are. This isn’t to say that important experiences aren’t to be found in faraway lands and novel experiences, but it’s the psychological shift that opens the door to growth, not the beach bonfires. Indeed, a contentedness with our present circumstances might be the foundational lesson we’re avoiding.
This lesson applies even if we decline to leave our zip code. Soup kitchens and youth mentoring programs serve important roles in our cultural fabric, and I’d encourage anyone with the time and means (see: anyone reading this) to get involved. However an affirmation of a friend, an apology to a sibling, or a call to a loved one might contain the most potent and enduring opportunities for personal transformation.
And it’s a both-and, not an either-or.
So yes, let’s do sun salutations in Costa Rica and rent motorbikes in Vietnam. But let’s also notice that joy and wonder in the miracle of Thursday evening soup with our third-favorite aunt.