051 - On Seven Popular Places - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Every place is the same as every other, Deuteros, in the sense that we are all planted to the same earth, and the sun rises and sets equally on us all. Why is it that some places seem destined to become places of wonder, whereas others bring out only the excesses in us? I would have you avoid popular places altogether, at least until you have learned to tame your passions, for fear that in chasing what others call desirable you lose sight of what you should find valuable.
There are three types of modern day meccas calling out the secular masses on their pilgrimages of tourism, adventurism, or debauchery. For the tourist, consider the modern day list of the seven wonders of the world: there is the Great Wall of China; the statue of Christ the Redeemer looking down from Corcovado mountain in Brazil; the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru; the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza in Mexico; the Colosseum in Rome, Italy; the Taj Mahal in Agra, India; and the former capital of the Nabataen empire in Petra, Jordan. Note that all but two of these are ruins, mute testament to great civilizations gone under. Most visit them to marvel at their accomplishments, though what we should be pondering are the reasons for their decline.
The grand adventurer is called to the great heights of the seven summits tour. To climb the tallest peak on each continent is to reach the penultimate height. Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Vinson, Elbrus. “Penultimate height,” you ask, “why what could be greater than this feat?” Remember that when it comes to one-upping our fellow man, humans display creativity unmatched by any less selfish pursuit. The seventh peak varies, you see, according to the explorer who lays claim to a new route to fame: Puncak Jaya, Kosciusko, Mont Blanc, Mauna Kea, Mount Wilhelm. I do not doubt that some molehill is even now having its stature reconsidered if it will yield an alternative route to the Guinness Book of Records. All these intrepid climbers are deemed mere amateurs, however, upon the addition of the North and South poles to the Explorer’s Grand Slam.
I do not need to slam the lesson home for you, Deuteros, to eschew the routes of both the “grand tour” tourist and the “grand slam” explorer. You have greater sense than that. But I sense you are showing a weakness for the third type of popular destination, and that is the party spot, the places people go to blow off steam and where we let human emotions run free. These riotous pools of excess humanity are exemplified in the following seven ways: on Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale and South Beach in Florida; in the bars and beaches of Cancun, Mexico; among the beads tossed from balconies during Mardi Gras in New Orleans; anywhere in the clubs of Benidorm, Spain, or dotting the Levante and Poniente beaches; amidst the sweaty dancers of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; behind the painted masks of the 72 hours of madness that is Dame Fasnacht in Basel; and ahead of the thundering hooves of the running of the bulls during the nine-day festival of Sanfermines in Pamplona, Spain.
What these all have in common is reckless abandon. The revelers give up their reason to bathe in emotion. “For all the rest of the year that we are dutiful citizens, give me these few days to run free!” If I wish to see people acting crazily, I do not need to see them drunken and heading for a night of unprotected sex. I do not need to hear them shouting and singing on their way to being hunched over a gutter spilling their guts in other noisy ways. I can tell you without looking that their faces will be lined with dark circles and regret as they line up to board the charter flight back home to their “normal” life.
No, if I want to discern true madness, I will observe the office worker in their tower, the suburban parent about their errands, the mall walker making their rounds. Their “normal” lives are just as insane as when they are on holiday taking a “break” from their senses. Why is this? Because they have set their whole lives in pursuit of things they know do not satisfy them or make them happy, and then they do it again and again expecting a different result.
For those who are training their minds, solitude may be the best way to avoid early unwelcome tests. If you do not wish to be tempted, do not wander blithely through the bazaar of modern desires. If you struggle to tell what looks good from what will feel right, do not surrender your emotions to the passions of the ungoverned mob. Better a single hour spent sitting in contemplation, cultivating your well-ordered mind, than a hundred hours lost to mindless revelry. How many hours do we spend in scrolling through Tik Tok videos or in never-ending games of Candy Crush? We are so much more easily led astray than we are led forward, and once having left the path we find our way back only with difficulty.
It is not the places that lead us astray, my dear Deuteros, but our minds. I would have you remember, though, that the places you are of a mind to go will shape your thinking, and may keep you from moving from the place you are in. So heed my advice to avoid all places that allow you to avoid thinking, and you will think better of yourself for it.