After living in Minnesota for 17 years, I finally made it to the Minnesota State Fair for the first time. It was time for me to experience the magic of pickle pizza, heartburn, and the fun with family that only the great Minnesota get together can create.
But within two minutes of passing through the security gate, in a place where I expected to be overtaken by joy and excitement, I brought only stress and an argumentative spirit toward my wife. I began to complain about where to go and what foods to try, all in an effort to best optimize our experience in order to have maximum amounts of fun.
This isn’t new for me. Whether it’s the State Fair, a night out, or a vacation, my tendency is to act like a jerk even though deep down I really want to create a nice environment for my family. If the point is to have fun and make memories, why do I do the opposite?
For starters, it’s hard to resist the promise that experiences are what I’m really missing in life – travel is the key I’ve been missing to unlock the true capacity for positive change and self discovery. I regularly buy what the industry is selling: Travel makes us free, joyful, human, whole, and alive (see here and here). No matter how much I know it isn’t true, it’s compelling. Their ads work on my heart:
“The new tagline, ‘Where Can We Take You?’, evokes not only the physical destinations one reaches when they travel, but the personal and spiritual destinations travel lifts them to. The line and the campaign underscore the brand’s belief in travel’s ability to help one grow, heal, and find common ground.”
Now, add to my expectations time and monetary investments and I find myself feeling entitled to the most optimal experience complete with curated photos and curated joy. It’s a feeling I earned! Even more, I end up feeling entitled to find myself.
But the truth is more like the SNL sketch, “Romano Tours” where Adam Sandler plays a tour guide of famous Italian sites, who wants to temper expectations for excited travelers. The most poignant joke of the sketch reminds us of the limits of travel and experiences: “If you are sad where you are, and you get on a plane to Italy, the you in Italy will be the same sad you from before, just in a new place. Does that make sense? There’s a lot a vacation can do. Help you unwind, see some different looking squirrels. But it cannot fix deeper issues, like how you behave in group settings, or your general baseline mood.”
My expectations become solidified in the hope that a trip to the State Fair, a date night, or a trip to California to see the Sequoia trees is going to bring me to new ‘personal and spiritual destinations.’ I’m looking to travel and experiences to change me, but the truth is, they can’t. I’m the same person on vacation that I am every other day. Travel shows me more of who I really am, so I guess in a way, I truly am finding myself, but the picture isn’t pretty. Realizing travel hasn’t healed me, but has actually revealed to me that I’m still me (just in a different place), snaps me back to reality like an overstretched rubber band.
Where is the hope, then, for a burned out “experience seeker” like myself? I can work harder to temper my own expectations for what an experience should be. I can spend more time planning to create a better schedule. But isn’t that just more attempts at optimization? Adding more behavior modification to my already wearied life seems to be the cause of the problem, not the solution.
The deliverance I seek from the burned out, self-seeking, optimized life of travel experiences isn’t to come up with a better plan but to be shown the grace of the one who traveled to me, and to us.
Jesus coming down to earth reveals that life isn’t about optimizing or travel hacking our way to heaven. Instead, it’s about coming face to face with the rest and relief that only the Son of God can bring. Grace teaches us that relief and rescue come not from inside, but from outside of us, from the Son of God who willingly comes to us to lay down his life, in order that we would let the well of our endless striving to be better finally dry up.
The cross of Christ pronounces the expiration date on all forms of self-optimization because, in the end, Christ’s greatest work was his death. There’s no experience that is less “optimized” than that! It is his costly and horrible experience on the cross that becomes the pathway to true life for all of us who are tired of trying to fix ourselves with the next experience and are ready to simply believe. Only in Jesus do I find the one who truly makes me free, joyful, human, whole, and alive.