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What Travel Can Teach Us About Empathy

By Julia Cosgrove

Feb 14, 2020

From the March/April 2020 issue

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The stories from AFAR’s March/April issue focus on different ways travelers can see things from others’ perspectives.

Photo by Marcus Maddox

The stories from AFAR’s March/April issue focus on different ways travelers can see things from others’ perspectives.

AFAR editor in chief Julia Cosgrove reflects on travel’s power to cultivate open-mindedness and respect.

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When I was a kid, my mom drilled into me the importance of considering other peoples’ feelings by repeating the phrase: “Try to put yourself in her shoes.” Today I understand that she was introducing me to empathy, a concept that ties inextricably to travel: If travel doesn’t engender empathy, you’re doing it wrong. 

For me, empathy starts with respecting the culture and history of every community. On a recent business trip to Washington, D.C., I spent my last 90 minutes at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Wheeling my suitcase behind me, I took the elevator down to the bottom floor. From there I began a physical journey that traces a historical journey up from slavery through the modern African American experience. Everyone should visit this museum: The rigor of research and the thought-provoking context it offers surpass what you’ll find in any textbook or documentary, and its focus on a group of people who helped build this country is long overdue.

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As author David Mura writes in his book A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing (University of Georgia Press, 2018), “We are not all-knowing creatures. If we live in a village . . . we think our truth is the only truth; we think the way we see ourselves is the only way to see ourselves. But if a stranger walks into our village, or if we . . . walk into a village of strangers, we are suddenly aware that there are other ways of looking at the world; there are other ways of looking at ourselves, at who we are, at our place in the world, at the ways we identify ourselves.”

In this issue, we invite you as travelers to find new ways to look at yourself and your place in the world. We dig into travel’s potential to help us build empathy by exposing us to different ways of living (see, for example, “The Thoughtful Traveler’s Guide to Indigenous Tourism”). We explore places, such as Berlin, that are putting empathy into action. And we hope to instill empathy by showcasing a diversity of voices that remind us that everyone moves through this world in a different way. 

I hope that in reading the stories in this issue, you’re challenged to expand outside your comfort zone—and open your mind to someone else’s point of view.

>>Next: Will Travel Save—or Destroy—the Maldives? 

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