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Tuesday 4 March 2014

Travel, Training, and Learning to Know Less

Where I sat in the heat and wrote this post.
Part of my work involves training young clinicians in various aspects of therapy and mental health service. Sometimes they ask about particularly valuable elements of training that I would recommend. By this they usually mean psychological texts, or practicum settings, or skill-building workshops.

There's merit to all of these. But just as important, I think, are experiences that are not designed with the mental health clinician in mind - things that do not appear on any curriculum and are not taught in psychotherapy classes. Things like having relationships, going through your own losses, reading insightful fiction, confronting your fears and limitations, and learning about your own biases.

One of the best tools for any clinician, and indeed any person wanting to understand more about their own life, their own culture, and their place in the world, is travel. By this I do not mean flying to a tennis-fenced compound around a pool with a swim-up bar and overdosing on margaritas for a week. I mean travel. A process of eroding the protective and comfortable boundaries we have grown up with and seeing other cultures and people from as close to inside as you can get (which is typically not very close, but close enough to challenge long-held assumptions).

The odd time I've said this to someone, I typically get a vague smile and knowing nod, because partly I'm just repeating a cultural cliche. Travel is broadening. But beneath that pat truism I think there's a more complicated way of thinking.

Imagine that you fly from your home planet down to Earth and are presented with what the inhabitants call a "chair". It's red, made of plastic, and has four concave legs. From this you develop an understanding of the concept of "chair."

Later in your journey you see something black that is made of tubular steel and leather, and that has runners rather than legs. Is this too a chair, or is it a distinct class of object with a different name? What makes something a chair? What are the core elements of chair-ness, and which elements are optional, irrelevant, or incidental? You can get a lecture on the subject, but it will remain vague until you actually experience various examples of "chair" - as well as similar non-chair objects such as "coffee table," "couch," and "ottoman".

We all grow up in the presence of adults. For many of us, there is a single example of the entity "woman" around, and often a single example of the object called "man". From this we learn what women and men are like, and this creates a powerful impression on us. So powerful that when we meet other examples of women, our perception of them is at first blurred by our assumptions created by the characteristics of that first woman. Imagine becoming a "men's therapist" having met only one man, and how little perspective, flexibility, or appreciation and allowance for differences you would have.

Now imagine being raised within an object that is more amorphous: a culture. Unlike chairs or women, we aren't even aware we are being presented with something. It is simply our reality. Girls wear skirts, school starts at eight-thirty, dinners are eaten at a table, salt is one of the two condiments left on that table, the purpose of life is to become an individual, and on and on. This isn't an object, or an assumption. It's the way things are. It's natural law, like gravity. So it seems.

Until, that is, you go far enough from home that you see people living in very different ways, with very different assumptions. And surviving. They violate the laws of your universe, and still function as human beings. They build their cities differently. They treat their relationship with their family differently. They eat differently. They have different perspectives on sexuality. The role of friendship is different. They even have toilets that are "built wrong."

As the pillars of truth you rely upon, the things that have been solid and immutable all your life, fall away, you get a queasy feeling of uncertainty and an impulse to retreat back into what you used to think of as reality. And if that queasy feeling, as though the floor beneath you has become transparent and hangs over a chasm, doesn't occur? That means you haven't gone far enough from home. Yet. The discomfort is the signal that you are working at the edge of your tolerance, pushing it back, farther, and a little farther.

The main outcome of travel is not that you learn more, it's that you are certain of less. A professor once told me that the function of an undergraduate degree is to teach you a lot of things, and the function of a graduate degree is to teach you that none of those things are really true. Travel is the graduate school of culture. It is exposure therapy designed to overcome our fear of cultural ambiguity.

The obvious point of all this is that in order to help people from various cultures it helps to have some appreciation of what their culture is like. So if you're going to see a lot of Cambodians, visit Cambodia. But a bigger point is that travel reveals and dismantles our own assumptions about our own culture, and erodes our sense that we know how things are supposed to be, or how they work best.

Having met diverse men, when we see that the next scheduled client is a man, we can sit back and clear our minds of some assumptions about men, opening our receptivity to what this particular man might be like. Having encountered hundreds of families, we can relinquish our Brady Bunch preconceptions of what families are like. And having visited various cultures, we can loosen our dogmatism about what works, how things should be, and the role of humans in the world.