In search of transformative value

I realized the other day that people don’t often undertake quests anymore. The hobbits holding the One Ring had to go on a quest to drop it in a volcano; modern problems, by contrast, don’t seem to have singular solutions that would make questing useful.

And then I found this helpful piece of thought on the topic:

* A Quest is trip to accomplish a Task.
* An Adventure is a trip without a destination.
* A Journey is when the trip is more important than the destination.

Having a life filled with tasks (local ones at that), and living in a time when GPS has found all the destinations for us, I think journeys are becoming pretty dang important. They’re the only way we can still displace ourselves in space to make our lives more complete.

There’s this one concept from the philosophy of ecology that really stuck with me. It’s called transformative value. And I think it’s key to explaining why journeying matters.

There are a lot of technical definitions of it, but I like this one a lot:

Transformative value “provides an occasion for examining or altering a felt preference rather than simply satisfying it.”

It’s the feature of a thing (or experience) that makes you take a deep breath and consider if what you’re doing is really so important. It’s useful for philosophers of ecology arguing for preservation of wilderness because interactions with nature seem to be full of it. People keep coming away changed when they see nature, and end up committed to the importance of getting out of the city and away from the comforts they otherwise cling to.

I’m not sure if nature’s your jam, though it might be — because you often don’t know what has transformational value to you until you face it. And usually, the thing that changes you matters less than how you got there. There’s a corollary to that: going back to the same well might not help quench any further thirst for change.

If you think about how our brains work a bit, I feel like they’re usually in need of being tricked to accept things that they don’t want to accept. Sometimes, it’s because fear and worry have hijacked our limbic systems and pushed us to become too deeply committed to something. Or it might be that continued failure has left you feeling horrified at what other problems could come next — to the point that your brain simply won’t consider adopting any new, reasonable options. The concept of transformational value just gives credit to something in the world for freeing your brain from whatever it’s blocked by.

The transformation you could undertake here isn’t something you’re wholly unaware of. But the real art is to find a journey that will deliver that transformative value, and make it feel okay for you to commit to something that you already know you should. That’s what we can do for ourselves: create the right journey for right now.

For me, it’s usually some form of novel travel that delivers. Backcountry hiking, the Mongol Rally, and an expedition on the Paraw have all done it for me when I needed it the most. Sometimes it’s with people, sometimes not. The transformations certainly feel like they’re narrowing around a certain theme, too — around the sorts of connection and intimacy that you really need to stay in one place to build properly. Maybe that’s a clue about where I need to look for my next path.

What is it about a winding forest trail that opens up space for self-discovery? What is in a museum that encourages you to not just listen, but to follow what you hear? What is it about finding your place in a city you’ve never been that opens up your world? What is it about raising a dog that makes you stop looking for constant change?

I don’t know. You’ll just have to begin your journey to find out.