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Rule #36. “All of life is a foreign country.”
This week’s Rule for Intrepid Living is a quote from Jack Kerouac, taken from a 1949 letter to John Clellon Holmes and included in The Beat Vision: A Primary Sourcebook in 1987.
So what was old Jack getting at when he wrote this?
Despite how it sounds, Kerouac wasn’t waxing poetic about travel in a strange land, but rather recounting an incident during which he was riding in the back of a truck with two boys when a car came out of the dark without headlights on, headed straight for the truck, and only narrowly missed hitting them. The children giggled at this, and the whole situation perplexed the author, who exclaimed, “What the hell is this, a foreign country?”
He goes on to tell Holmes, “Turns out, all of life is a foreign country. This incident which I have just described is one of the great mysteries of my life. Nobody could help me figure it out. I just couldn’t understand what was going on. Can you?”
Jack wasn’t expounding on the novelty of life on the road, he was talking about how life confused him, how seemingly random events perplexed him. Perhaps he sensed a greater meaning but just couldn’t grasp it. At the heart of this section of his letter, however, is the notion that even things that we think ought to be familiar, recognizable, or commonplace can still seem foreign to us.
What can we learn from Jack’s confusion and perplexity? I think that we can take away the idea that the novel, unfamiliar, and strange don’t exist only in faraway lands. Just because we may not have the opportunity to travel to distant places (yet) doesn’t preclude us from exploring new experiences; Kerouac’s confusion perfectly illustrates that something foreign to you could lie just around the corner.
There is no end to the unfamiliar details we can investigate. The same old trail I hike every month becomes new again when covered in a foot of snow. Even when intimately familiar with the locale we inhabit, it’s always changing, always in the process of becoming foreign yet again.
An hour down the road is a town to which you’ve never been. Sure it’s not actually a foreign country, but in a very literal way it’s new. You may not see the green fields of France, the pyramids, or the Parthenon, but you will see something you’ve never seen before, if you’re willing to make the trip.
Of course, none of this means that you should avoid traveling to countries and locales that actually are foreign! You can and should do so if possible. The point of microadventure isn’t to deter you from having macroadventures, rather to ensure that you’re leading an exciting life regardless of your situation or skill level. The small can lead to the large, if you stick with it.
While Kerouac never intended this phrase from his letter to be used to advocate microadventuring, I don’t think he’d necessarily disapprove. Perhaps he could appreciate gleaning value from perplexities he confronted in the back of a truck. So while paying respect to the original context, I think we should let this quote inspire us to seek new and unfamiliar experiences wherever we may be. We should strive not only to seek adventure far from home, but to be adventurers everywhere we go.
We should seek to live in such a way that “all of life is a foreign country.”
“Rules for Intrepid Living” is a weekly post giving guidelines for how we can all live a bit more of an intrepid life.