Photo: aturkus

Open-minded is one thing, but being openhearted takes us to a whole other level.

Travel opens us up to other ideas, cultures, and ways of living life – this is something we all know, and more than likely is a part of the “why” we travel.

But lately I’ve been contemplating what it actually means to be open. “Open-minded” is the phrase most often associated with being receptive to that which we don’t necessarily believe or relate to, or even to that which makes us uncomfortable. But I want to reclaim a word used less often: openhearted.

Interestingly (at least to me), Merriam-Webster defines openhearted first as “candidly straightforward”, and second as “responsive to emotional appeal”. Candidly straightforward is not what I’m going for here – seems a very Western approach to a heartfelt function, doesn’t it? Instead, I think being openhearted is literally about opening your heart to that which is given – or plopped – in front of you.

I think the reason I’ve recently thought so much about being openhearted is because mine tends to get stuck in halfway closed mode. Call it life beating you over the head, or just a deeply-ingrained personality quirk, but I keep myself safeguarded. It’s seemingly easier to survive with a little protection cup over your heart.

I’ve written in the past about how you can heal a broken heart through travel. But what I’ve realized, as I begin to look back over 2009, is that I love to travel because this is the time my heart finds itself fully open to life and the world around me.

It’s almost a survival mechanism in reverse – in order to “make it” in an unfamiliar place, the walls have to come tumbling down. Sure, basic precautions around safety are a must, but the reality is, you must often rely on people you don’t know that well to make it through.

Opening To Survive

Photo: liquene

Preconceived notions (or delusions) fly out the window when it’s dark and you’ve just stepped off the plane in Dar Es Salaam without a clue of where to go. Or when the winding streets of Venice keep leading you back to the same place – nowhere near your hostel. You’re forced to ask for help.

Maybe those notions leave fastest of all when you stay up all night talking to someone you meet just hours before, revealing tidbits of both beauty and ugliness you’ve never told anyone.

Travel (of a particular kind) not only forces us out of our comfort zone, it pries open the lid under which our true self – one inextricably linked to all those with whom we share this Earth – has a chance for outward expression.

I snuck in a couple of months of travel around the US this year, and as I sit here settled for a bit, I recognize the luck in feeling that sacredness. It can be a bit hard to recreate “at home”, with all of the directions life likes to pull us, but I’m working on it.

Taking chances when the door is slightly ajar, meditating on a feeling of spaciousness in your chest, simply stopping to chat with the neighbor you’ve never spoken with before – life really is just about possibility.

Leave it to a Poet

As I was writing this, a friend posted the poem The Journey by Mary Oliver that expresses the sentiment more eloquently than I ever could:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

What are ways that travel has helped you open your heart? Share your thoughts below.

Community Connection

Read a very open and heartfelt letter against institutionalized racism from Matador’s Managing Editor, Julie Schwietert, to the judge who refused to marry an interracial couple in Louisiana earlier this year. And as a reminder to stay open and not pre-judge people – especially when it comes to travel writing – check out David Miller’s 8 Ways of Seeing People that Can Sabotage Your Writing.