Sacrificing Reality to “The Best”

Jephthah sacrifices his daughter

My son and I just finished a three-week journey in Europe.  I will share a taste of some of our experiences after organizing photos, but for now, I’d like to share a few insight posts about trips in general.

Yesterday we had a big family reunion where I heard my son constantly asked questions like:  “What was your best experience on the trip?”, “What was your favorite country?”, “What was your favorite food?”.

I had prepped my son for such questions when we had similar questions on first returning from our trip.  At that time I had taken him aside and explained something like this:

“Look, everyone is going to want you to reduce all your experiences in Europe to a few “bests”.  When answering these sorts of questions, you will at first find it difficult to distill out “the bests”, but with repeated effort you soon will find a few bests that satisfy all your listeners so that you can summarize your experience without boring listeners. By asking “Best” questions, people are only trying to superficially let you share your trip.  It is their way of sharing — without really sharing.

But, though it is customary and seemingly benign, it is a horrible thing to do.  You don’t have to let others teach you how to kill reality.  Fitting your experiences into “Best” categories may be convenient for listeners who don’t really want to share but it is horrible because you will also:”

  • Form the bad habit of falsely judging one experience vs. another
  • Quickly kill memories of other events and stop deep learnings in your mind
  • Distort memories with exaggeration and atrophy
  • Learn to boil down and distil reality to “bests” while destroying all the rest — a horrible crime.

As we went through examples, I was very pleased to see that my son understood.  And today, at the reunion, I heard him answering similar question from adults who tempted him to reduce and distort his experiences.  He shared a few stories but added creative caveats explaining that all his experiences were rich.  He refused to sacrifice his reality and left the adults a little off guard.

Question to readers:  This “Tell me your best”, “Tell me your favorite” questioning has seemed a perversion to me for decades. Is it just me, or has anyone else felt the destructive reductionism of this sort of thinking?

Notes & related posts:



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “Sacrificing Reality to “The Best”

  1. matheroni

    Hi, Sabio. I’m looking forward to reading some more about your trip.

    I have never thought about these kind of questions as dangerous, but now that you say it… 🙂 If I think back how I tend to answer questions like this about a trip, I seem to make sport of answering them every time differently or just picking something very little, seemingly insignificant that startles the one who poses the question. For example a girl witk Down-syndrome telling her Mum on the Wienna tram to sit ‘on our seats’, just opposite a lady with a huge grocery bag and a tray of beercans (=indicating that it all took place in the suburbs, with locals in the tram instead of tourists).

  2. Mike aka MonolithTMA

    I had never really thought about those questions until I heard the following story, which instantly became one of my favorites.

    Celestial Navigations – Back Porch

  3. sgl

    it’s not just you. i always had the same problem. it’s just the wrong question to ask. kinda like “true or false, how long is a piece of string”, or “when did you stop beating your wife”. i also had a problem with the reaction of people before i left on my trip. i will note however, that there is a certain class of people that are also ‘travellers’ with whom the conversation just naturally flows. and there are a few people that have a serious interest in travel, and something about their questions is a bit different.

    also, i recommend keeping a journal of your trip — i can still read my journals from my 1991 trip to europe or my 1994 trip to asia, and it will bring back memories that i didn’t write down, but the details of what i did write will help me recall other info. i’d suggest writing down your memories now while the trip is still fresh in your mind!

    a few excerpts of things i wrote elsewhere:
    In 1991, I took a leave of absense from work, and traveled for 3 months in Western Europe, plus Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. When I told people what I was going to do, the response was fairly uniform — “That’s so cool, I wish I could do that”, usually followed by a question or maybe two, then a slight pause before they change the subject to something like what movies are playing, or similar suburban chatter. The fact is, few people really had any serious interest in foreign travel, altho the concept has a certain amount of market cachet with them.

    I’ve done a little bit of travel myself, and it has changed me, but often in subtle ways that are hard to explain. Then I stumbled across a quote that seemed to express my view far better than I could:

    Joseph Cambell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces wrote:

    Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; … where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
    –Joseph Cambell

    In 2001, I started digitizing my travel photos and typing my hand-written journal entries to integrate them into a series of travel web pages for me and my family. Here’s the introduction I wrote for that:

    I have travelled to 23 different countries in the world. Postcards are no substitute for being there. Sometimes it seems museums are simply a way to pass the time while waiting to met an interesting local person or fellow traveller.

    Travel and reading reinforce each other. Travel increases my curiosity about other peoples and places and times. Reading history is more fun when I’ve visited or seen the places involved. More knowledge of history makes me want to travel more.

    A travel writer I like writes as follows:
    “Travel is intensified living – maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It’s recess, and we need it.

    Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character. The world is a cultural yarn shop.“

    –Rick Steves, “Europe through the Back Door,” 1996


  4. As a former English teacher I’m always asked, “What is your favorite book?” It’s an impossible question for me to answer however, as I have had many favorites over the years: as a teenager, I loved “The Catcher in the Rye;” when I was in college, my favorites were “Madame Bovary” and “The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Nowadays I have no favorites: I read widely and seldom one book at a time. I might be re-reading the Wizard of Earthseas series while tackling a book by Naomi Klein and another about preparing for a long-distance cycling trip. I enjoy all of these books, but not one is my “favorite.” Yet if I try to explain to people the merits of all of these book, they either get bored, confused, or will ask, “Well, can’t you just narrow it down to one?” This question however destroys the complexity of the reading process—not all of us read for pleasure, especially those of us who are continuing learners and scholars. And some books aren’t really pleasant to read, but draw us into them, like “An Ordinary Man” by Paul Rusesabagina (whose memoir “The Hotel Rwanda” is based on). Is this book my favorite? Not really, but I would hope the person I’m discussing books with will try reading it sometime.

    As you mentioned to your son, I think these questions are just attempts by the questioner to share your experience, or get to know you better. It does become a rhetorical trap, however. I’m glad your son figured out how to parse out a thoughtful answer.

  5. @ matheroni :
    That is an excellent technique — great example, thanx.

    @ Mike :
    Sorry, your link would not work in my version of flash.

    @ sgl :
    (1) Instead of blogging, every day I did indeed write a journal of the trip — not for myself, but for my son. I agree with you.

    @ Hangaku Gozen :
    That was funny! A literature teacher asked for their favorite book!! Great examples — thanx!!

  6. TWF

    I hadn’t quite thought out the nasty effects of the “bests,” but I think you are right in many cases. I have a hard time coming up with “bests” when asked, so I often say one of the better experiences which I think the people I am speaking to would be most interested by, and leave it at that.

  7. @ TWF :
    I can say that when it comes to mind numbing, reflexive encounters my tendency is to stretch the expected. It is not necessarily because I want to effect the person I am talking to, but I just want to keep my mind alive. Otherwise, when I do the expected parts of my mind feel dead — or maybe I should say it tastes stagnant and stale, or looks grey or dull monotonous brown.

    So, I experiment like Roni (matheroni) did, or explain to the listener like my son and Hangaku did. But such methods are less affable than the style you described. For as I wrote, the “Tell me your best …” statement seems more like a social signal than it is a request for real information — sort of like “How ya doin’?” — it is a question not really seeking an answer but just used to grease to social gears — the gears of the machine that mechanically cranks out the same products.

    Thanks for jumping in to share. These sorts of wonderings seem to reach even deeper into the religious mind and are a major dialogue I love with atheists to explore the parts of mind that may be free of superstition, but still reflexive and numbing and thus show that being free of superstitions may not be as nobel as many atheists imagine.

    @ Mike :
    I finally got my Flash to work — it was a fun recording. Nurturing the mind where the next moment is the best is an interesting spin on the question — but I wonder if “The Best” is a curse. Thus, I have changed the title of this post. Thanx.

  8. Glad you got it working and enjoyed it.

    “The Best” can definitely be a curse, leaving one feeling let down. I’ve had some wonderful experiences in my life, but I try not to set myself up for disappointment, I’d rather live in the moment and enjoy each experience as it comes to me.

  9. That is a fantastic approach to life, Mike!

  10. Thanks! Some days it works better than others. 😉

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