Passages and Pilgrimages

WE ARE ALL on a journey, it seems—the butcher, the baker, participants in reality shows from The Bachelor to Pit Bulls and Parolees, those with chronic or terminal illnesses, the grieving, the people in pink walking for three days to raise money to fund breast cancer research, and, of course, actual travelers moving from one geographic point to another. A movie about a pilgrimage, The Way, even enjoyed a grassroots-fueled, quiet-but-steady success this fall.

As Jack, a character in The Way, exclaims, in an enthusiastic monologue on travel-related metaphors to warm the hearts of English majors everywhere, “The road itself is among our oldest tropes!” And more popular than ever, if our cultural rhetoric is any indication.

This plays out in how we describe important emotional and spiritual events or challenges: Counselors often use journey language to describe grief, for example. Many who’ve suffered the death of a beloved can describe how loss casts a person into unfamiliar territory, and how the process of working through raw emotion and “finding our way back” to accept new realities takes us to, and through, different emotional or spiritual places.

“Journey” is now the go-to word in today’s pop psychology lexicon for most any kind of personal process or narrative. This is seen to mixed effect on reality shows, where the term is ubiquitous—sometimes used poignantly, bearing real freight as people attempt to deal with life-and-death issues such as addiction or morbid obesity. Other times it can seem laughable—earnestly used to describe the search for “true love” in an audition-selected pool of carefully pruned and polished contestants or for purported wisdom gained between Real Housewives smack-downs and party planning. Alas, just because you say you’re on a journey doesn’t mean you’re really getting anywhere.

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