What is Your Prison
Photographed in Yucatan, MX
What is it about the human species that wants to (feels compelled to) label and categorize everything, and everyone? Because once something (or someone) is labeled, it becomes all too easy to tuck it (or them) away in a box. I hate boxes. Things (and people) disappear into boxes, never to be seen or heard from again.
Traveling, I run into this same problem (at least it’s a problem for me), everyone is trying to stick a label on me: he’s one of the twins (we’re not), one of the brothers (los hermanos), he’s the photographer, the writer, the traveler, the expatriate. He’s the malcontent: “My country, love it or leave it.” He chose to leave it.
But I am more than my label(s). A label may define one aspect (or layer) of my being, but I am not just that. Like the proverbial onion, I have many layers. Some of my layers you may like, and even approve of, others you may not like and may feel obliged to condemn out of hand.
Early on in my travels I felt the need to explain myself. Most expatriates (and even travelers) have a prepackaged story they trot out for new acquaintances. The story is always full of labels. And after the umpteenth time of dragging it out, it becomes routine and monotonous. I don’t often do it anymore. Better to remain a man of mystery, than to suffer the boredom of rehashing the same old story ad nauseam.
You quickly learn that most expatriates are in the process of reinventing themselves. This in itself is not a bad thing, but you also learn that often much of that reinvention is bullshit. I cannot entirely exclude myself from this criticism. However, the really interesting thing (and the most disappointing) is that they are often recreating the very life they left behind, and expecting their new country and culture of choice to conform.
I used to think the label of expatriate was romantic and adventuresome, no longer. I find that many are simply economic refugees who want no part of a new and foreign culture. This is not only depressing, but sad. If one must use a label, then I think the word traveler comes closer to the mark these days. Traveler imbues the notion of: curiosity, adventure and all of the positive aspects of exploration (even into one’s own psyche).
Beware of labels, unless you don’t mind winding up in a box. A box is just another word for prison where, as Thoreau famously said, “Men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And the worst labels, boxes and prisons are those that we inflict and impose upon ourselves. Be honest with yourself, and try to understand what makes you tick (it’s not the same for everyone). Fool yourself at your peril. Satisfaction comes from knowing yourself, and being true to your nature.
I’ve always loved the Buddhist parable of the scorpion and the frog: The scorpion implores the frog to carry him to the other side of the river, but stings the frog halfway across killing them both. The dying frog asks why, and the scorpion simply says: “It’s my nature, I’m a scorpion.” Noun and verb: a scorpion scorpions. To expect anything different is both naive and foolish. I would claim the same privilege for myself: Steve Steve’s (it’s simply my nature). What is your nature?
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler
Reporting from Matapalo Samara, Costa Rica . . .