What Could Be

September 8, 2023

Natalie Zeifman (she/her/hers), Low Entropy Volunteer Writer

It is easy to argue that traveling broadens a person’s mind. You will, by definition, see new things and have new experiences, expanding your awareness of what exists and what is possible. The extent of that impact and how much your awareness of the world changes is, of course, going to vary with whether you stumble upon the astounding or the minute. However, I didn’t jump at writing this article to talk about cool travel experiences. What I really wanted to talk about was travel’s role in helping people be more open-minded, and the profound effect that it can have in how we form our societies.

I have personally always loved learning about other cultures, other ways of doing things and other ways of looking at things. The meaning of something can seem so universally determined and concretely set in the place you grew up, with little room for argument. But when you travel, even just through reading or watching media, meanings open up. Beauty standards transform. The meaning of wealth grows new branches. What it means to be happy, what it means to be a friend, right and wrong, clean and disorderly, sacred and vapid – shades of color are added to your understanding of the world that you didn’t even know were missing.

But as much as I have loved exploring other ways of being, I have equally feared not being able to fully know greater truths. I have been afraid that I would base my life and choices on frameworks of experience that are too small to be informed, that there would always be an elusive truth outside of my fingertips. But trying to know everything is impossible and rather unpleasant, so I have had to remind myself to accept humble uncertainty. It is an approach that I believe can be empowering and revolutionary in its own way, on top of helping a person keep their sanity.

It is when we believe we know everything there is to know that we can trap ourselves in a repeating film. This may not seem like a problem for traditionalists, but for those who want social change, it can be suffocating. Let’s take, for example, a key justification often used in oppressive circumstances: That the way things are now is biologically determined and universal, and thus that change is futile and impossible. If our society doesn’t deliver this message directly, then our own knowledge does. It is hard to imagine that more than what we know could truly exist. What is, is, and that’s that. If it sucks, there’s nothing for it.

But can you picture, for example, the strength of imagination that those who first fought for women’s right to education had to have, especially in a context where they had known nothing else, and where they had been made to believe for centuries that their minds and bodies were biologically inferior? Leading European scientists held the mental inferiority of all but white men to be fact.

What is that power, then, to be able to stand up for the truth, even when you are being told you are incapable of speaking it? What is that ability to see that something could be possible besides this, and to believe it’s worthy of being known? It seems clear to me that, at the very least, openness to possibility is a necessity of social progress, and the belief that there is no other acceptable way forward but the status quo can truly act like poison to oppressed but hopeful imaginations.

A similar discussion has been popping up in talks around climate change – one of the leading social and biological problems of our time. If people believe changing the way we live is futile or impossible, then we might not do what we need to do to address the problem. Hope, an openness to possibility, and the actions that follow, are what drive the world forward. It’s important to live in a world that allows us to ask, “What if?”

When I was studying for the anthropology side of my degree (a discipline focused on teaching what it means to be human, both culturally and physically), one of the favored phrases that came up again and again in my courses was that the familiar is strange. This phrase acted as a call to denormalize and stop taking for granted the everyday ways we live, so we could better accept and be more open to the diversity of human experience. If we could recognize that many of the dynamics in our own lives were actually quite strange or arbitrarily inherited from past social dynamics, then we no longer had to feel so constrained or defined by them, nor could we so easily hold our own strangeness as superior.

For example, aren’t ties as a symbol of formal attire rather strange? They actually weren’t even a thing until the 17th century. Did you know that good luck charms are classified as a modern practice of magic? That’s a fun one. Is pink really meant to be a girl’s color? No, at least not historically or cross-culturally, and what does “meant to be” even mean? Don’t all cultures agree that there are two genders? Not at all. In fact, many cultures have three genders. Is it normal to live in a culture where women are photoshopped to look impossibly physically small? There are many points that could be made here, but one of them is certainly that there are many societies that have long believed a voluptuous body to be more beautiful. “Normal” has a larger context, but it also has people that deserve to be served by how it is defined in their own time and place.

In our increasingly globally connected world, we don’t necessarily have to physically travel to get to know the possibilities of other ways of life. We just have to be open and curious. Human diversity can inspire and open up the world for us, freeing us from the things that claim to define us, and encouraging us to view change as something that’s truly possible. While there are many social and physical forces acting to shape our lives, we can’t forget that life isn’t merely something that’s done to us, it’s also something we have at least some power to shape for ourselves.

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