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Vacilando: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”

(About a 7 minute read)

In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all.  If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.   — John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

Traveling can sometimes be a straightforward, grim business of getting from one place to another as efficiently as possible.  The goal looms large then, it becomes the lens through which everything else is seen.

Is the airport crowded?  The goal sees the throngs of people as nothing more than an obstacle to it, certainly not an opportunity for people watching.  The flight is delayed?  The goal is annoyed, irritated, and in no mood to fully enjoy the chance to finish reading a novel.  At the hotel, there’s just enough time to shower, change, and then for one last time prepare for the business meeting.  The goal doesn’t even think of exploring a nearby restaurant.

As a rule, the more efficiently one pursues a goal, the more ruthlessly one turns chance opportunities into distractions, annoyances, obstacles, or into things ignored, completely unseen.  In the end, one whittles down traveling to the point its only reward is attaining the goal.

Vacilando is almost the opposite of straightforward, grimly efficient travel.  It still has a goal, but the goal does not dominate the journey, it is not the lens through which everything along the way is single-mindlessly seen.  Vacilando, so to speak, is travel with a sense of humor.  The chance opportunities are not the obstacles of straightforward traveling, but rather the punch lines of vacilando.

It seems to me that vacilando, as a concept, should not be confined to merely labeling one kind of traveling.  For I believe the concept is more broadly applicable to life itself.  When we vacilando through life, we have some destination in mind, but we are in no efficient rush to reach it.  We are open to chance opportunities, detours, explorations, adventures.  And why shouldn’t we be?

In a discussion of vacilando over on the blog, Singledust, Frank Hubeny remarks:

It seems to me best to be more concerned [in life] about the means rather than the ends which we may not understand and which may turn out differently (both better or worse from some perspective) than we anticipated.  [bracketed material mine]

Indeed, no matter how firmly we believe in our life’s goals,  no matter how fixed an idea we have of them, life all so often plays with our expectations, throws back at us something that is not quite what we had in mind.

I remember a friend of mine, Al, who in his sixties perfectly reconciled himself to ending his life as a single man.  Then at 66 or 67, he had a heart attack.  That landed him in the hospital where a much younger 34 year old nurse took notice of him.  The two ended up moving in together.   And I’ll wager there’s not a person on earth over the age of 15 who doesn’t have dozens of such stories.  Stories of our firm and solid expectations knocked to pieces by life’s apparently endless fascination with messing with us.

To attempt to journey through life as straightforward as a bullet shot at a target is perhaps a species of insanity.  It certainly sets one up for disappointment, which if not entirely inevitable, is surely the odds on favorite bet of the gods.  But worse than any disappointment at not reaching one’s goals, might be the missed opportunities for exploration, discovery, growth, and unexpected fulfillment.

I have read of psychological studies that find people towards the end of their lives value the experiences they’ve had far more than the possessions they owned.  If they have regrets they are usually not for failing to own a bigger house, a faster boat, more jewelry, or finer clothes; their regrets are for missing their kid’s performance in Arsenic and Old Lace, failing to take that trip down the Amazon, so seldom eating as a family, forever putting off the dance lessons, making excuses not to attend the family reunions.

But those are merely regrets for what one knows one missed.  Whole new worlds can be closed off to us when we wear the blinders of too efficiently  pursuing a narrow goal in life.  It is both tragic that today’s economy forces so many of us to almost single-mindlessly live as if enslaved to financial goals.  We work longer and longer hours to meet the obligations of our mortgage, our kid’s higher education, our retirement fund, and so forth, taking fewer and shorter vacations, spending less and less time with our family and friends, ruling out so many life enhancing things that we no longer have the time for.  For far too many of us, the journey through life is becoming an unending business trip.

That’s unlikely to change unless and until enough people rise up to demand a more equitable share of the world’s wealth — for we live in an ironic age:  The world economy is the richest in the history of humanity, and grows leaps and bounds by the minute, yet because those riches are increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the average person in most developed countries now struggles harder than his or her parents and grandparents did forty or fifty years ago, when the global economy was a fraction of what it is today.

Is vacilando still possible?  Surely to some extent it is, but I wonder whether it is a realistic option on a large scale.  I spent five and half years at university, taking courses not only in my major and two minors, but in nearly every major field of science with a little English literature thrown in for the fun of it.   Yet, tuition was low back then and I graduated virtually debt free, and with an education that has endlessly enriched the quality of my life.  Today’s graduates, however, must “rush” through university in four years, least they rack up too big of a bill, and yet, they still graduate with an average student debt of $37,172 .  Vacilando on a large scale might be all but dead.

Dead or not, it still strikes me as a worthy ideal, and it still seems obtainable on smaller scales — How one spends a weekend, or even a single day.  Even, if one has the time, how one approaches an activity, such as a hobby.  Are you planning out what you wish to accomplish as if your hobby were a military campaign, or are you meandering through it, exploring as much as progressing?  On a small scale, vacilando still seems possible.

D. H. Lawrence somewhere in The Virgin and the Gypsy writes that the challenge for youth is to find the “unexpected and undiscovered door” to their future fulfillment in life.  An implication is that that door is different for different people, for it cannot be found once, it’s location marked, and then maps to it distributed to others.   Yet, discovering it, and then passing through it, is essential to living a fulfilling life.  Lawrence’s door, I think, represents the juncture where our talents meet the needs of society, for it is there that we find our bliss in life.  And I believe, based on my experience, that life has a way of leading us to that door when we respond sensitively and inquisitively to the chance opportunities life offers us.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a discussion of vacilando going on over at Gina’s blog, which can be found here.   Or you are more than welcome to comment on it on this blog.  Either way, please let me know what you make of the concept!

Last, J. R. R. Tolkien reminded us that, “Not all who wander are lost”.  That seems to me to capture something of the core spirit of vacilando.  To wander, but with a sense of direction.


Hat Tip to Aayush, who’s explanation for the name of his blog, The Vacilando, got this whole thing started.  Aayush is an admirable 16 year old blogger whose clear, easy-to-read prose could be that of a 32 year old.

8 thoughts on “Vacilando: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost””

  1. This is a much more thorough review of my blog’s name. That Tolkien quote you mentioned has always been one of my favorite. The line preceding it is also good, and a play of sorts on a popular adage.
    ‘All that is gold does not glitter,
    Not all those who wander are lost’

    I don’t really think demanding more money is the answer. I think rather than all these years of college education, you could just take a moment to analyse how the world works and figure out a way to be rich. So many rich people are dropouts, take Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (I think, not sure) fir instance.
    The trick to being successful is being irreplaceable. Provide goods or services that the market values, and the market will give you cash to spend. The thing is that you simply can’t become richer than others by doing what everyone else is doing. But anyhow, I’m getting carried away.

    Pretty good post, and keep up the good work.
    Cheers,
    Aayush.

    1. Thank you for dropping by and sharing your views, Aayush. While I agree with you that “being irreplaceable” (along with about two dozen other factors that you happily left unmentioned) is one way to financial success, I don’t believe everyone is interested in becoming “richer than others” (and I would not force them to become interested), nor do I think being irreplaceable is actually feasible in practice for most of the world’s seven billion plus people.

      Those are my views. I will not debate you — or anyone — on them because science has repeatedly shown that debate does very little to change anyone’s opinion, and instead, tends to cause people to entrench their beliefs, even when their beliefs are misguided or irrational. I do enjoy understanding what other people believe, though, and I appreciate your sharing your views.

  2. A great article Paul, practising Vacilando would create a much more fulfilling life, as you have said. I don’t have many doors open in my life, but i hope to change that by seeing how things go, becoming a leaf in the wind, so to speak 😀

    1. “A leaf in the wind”, eh? That poetic expression suggests to me living wholly without any direction, which is somewhat different than vacilando. It’s an interesting idea, though, and I think as a practice it now and then has its place. At one point in my life, I did a fair share of aimless wandering, allowing myself to be blown about like your “leaf in the wind”, and in my case it led to many a discovery, and several new friends. I don’t think it’s desirable to live entirely or forever that way, but it has its place.

  3. If I did not have my kids to care for I would still be a wanderer, some places have such a pull and I like to wander alone. but I think vacilando is more than that, its a desire to just be part of a stream of humanity, it cannot be equated with travel plans or schedules, I think you got it right in the story of your friend who met the one he would spend the rest of his life with, life is vacilando in itself, it takes us where it wants and tells us where to be to be found, a destiny we cannot deny but sometimes resist and then we continue down a path not blessed by the vacilando of life. thank you for this lovely read Paul! Loved your thoughts so much and its inspired a lot of new ideas in me.

    1. “Life is vacilando itself”. I’d say you are spot on there, Gina! Even when we deny or ignore it, as we so often do, life itself behaves more like vacilando than like a straightforward road to a goal or destination. Thank you so much for your comments!

  4. I was going to be kind of grumpy about this — because my life has been so often vexed by directionless people who aren’t content to be directionless but also try to derail other people (meaning me, for purposes of this discussion) by bashing those who “don’t stop to smell the roses” or are “too” goal oriented. Stripped down, these homilies always turn out to mean “your need for punctuality/answers/responsibility/good management is obstructing my desire to waffle, putter and fuck around while the house burns down.” I still have vivid memories of the desire to throttle associated with a college friend who offered to drive me 75% of the way home at Thanksgiving for the price of sharing gas, only I discovered that at nine-thirty at night (about four hours after I expected to hit the road) she had done nothing to organize for departure and brushed me off with “it’ll get done.” We pulled up to her home in Bumfuck, PA at five-thirty in the morning after spending all night on the Jersey Turnpike. I hate the passive voice in these situations.

    But then your kicker is right on target. Whole geological layers of the world, right up through people who live in apparent, First World comfort (working HVAC, spiffy grocery a mile away, nice clothes, no shots fired at night) are living on hateful treadmills because a small number have figured out how to sequester almost all the world’s resources for their own comfort and control needs. There is no earthly reason why, with all our technology and the wealth we can create, anyone should be getting up on not enough sleep to rush through a day doing something mind-stultifying, neglecting their health, their relationships and even their reason for being alive — no earthly reason why anyone should not have regular opportunity to just fuck off for a day and see what happens. Without that the spirit withers; there is no art, no creativity, no discovery.

    And yep, as nice as it sounds, there is no way everyone can unilaterally change that for him or herself, even though we can refuse to buy into a lot of ideas about what we “have” to do. When 99% of the people in the world’s richest country are fighting for an adequate share of what the remaining 1% let fall from their table, change has to be a public effort.

    1. Thanks so much for pointing out something I very much should have mentioned in my post — that some folks make quite obnoxious use of “stop to smell the roses”, etc. as a criticism or condemnation of other folks. I find such attempts to unnecessarily impose one’s values on others a form of abuse in so far as they can amount to an attempt to “unnecessarily alienate us from ourselves” — which to me is the very definition of “abuse”. It is one thing to say, “Hey, I’m going to take my time”, and quite another to say, “You must value your time as I value mine or there’s something wrong with you”.

      Also, I think you’ve again insightfully added to my post by emphasizing that “change has to be a public effort”. There is little or no hope we’ll see a better distribution of wealth without organized, sustained, collective action.

      As usual,. Sledpress, your observations are a rich source of insight. Thank you so much for sharing them!

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