In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s character races across the globe in search for an adventurer, played by Sean Penn. The ensuing travels take Walter on a psychological rush. Suddenly, his life is full of excitement and uncertainty. But before he jumps — takes that chance — Walter is stuck at the office. He’s afraid to leave. His life is a boring repetition of the same cycle of work.
Recently, I’ve noticed a similar dissension within me. While I enjoy my work immensely and have deep passion for helping others, this delayed gratification of graduate school prevents me from engaging in a fundamental, eye-opening experience: international travel.
Seeing another culture has been shown to aid in the development of empathy. Intuitively, that finding makes sense, as we often live blindly to those in difficult life circumstances. Immersive cultural experiences such as travel and reading help people become rounded.
Sign me up for the discomfort of having to negotiate a car rental without speaking the language. I’ll find a way. Sign me up to confront class differences between cultures and peoples. I’ll question my assumptions. Sign me up to try the exotic foods and push my boundaries. I’ll open my stomach and heart.
With these values and ideas in mind, I’ve been fantasizing like Walter Mitty. Days go by in work and writing, but I secretly imagine a getaway — daydreaming my way to Denmark, Egypt, France, Israel, and Russia. Sometimes I picture dropping everything and running; after all, we only have these moments. Each time I dream big, I slowly regain composure and repeat simple mantras: “must save, later will travel” or “must work, employer needs me” or “once I get my PhD, then I’ll travel.”
But moments of lust for flight keep hitting. Nowadays, the fantasy occurs every time I’m in an airport. If the flight is delayed, cancelled, or I’m flying standby, I look at Kayak.com for the cheapest flights to… anywhere. From hundreds to thousands of dollars, I wonder if I could just go — without fear or restriction.
One of my greatest regrets has been my failure to develop fluency in a second language. Travel could’ve aided in language acquisition. As a frugal person, I can’t quite afford it yet. I’m stuck on saving a little egg that can protect me and someday empower me to travel. I find that terribly frustrating.
My guess is many people are like me. We’re busy working away during the week and the money is helping us get by. If you’re more frugal, you can sock away a little more, too. We’re hardly rolling in the dough, though.
If we could cheaply travel, we would. And yes, there are ways to travel more affordably. You can get a credit card with a signup bonus, buy tickets well in advance, look for student/senior discounts when possible, stay at hostels, and travel light. But at the end of the day, travel requires time off work and savings. It necessitates a certain safety net, unless you’re willing to risk homelessness because of the desire to travel. And there are classes and cultures right here at home that cannot and will not travel — ever — despite whatever desire they have internally.
When my head and heart race, I slow down by remembering my consistent goals. I want to be able to provide for others, give healthily to charity, avoid nasty loans, save for retirement, and be prepared for an emergency. Travel will come, and as much as the daily drools of quotidian life will never appeal to me, I do recognize what I’m building here. Frugality is a philosophical aspiration where I realize that life can be grand with less. Eventually, I’ll buy the ticket and take the ride.