Taking a Walk? Godspeed!

Solvitur ambulando, or “It is solved by walking,” in Latin — a Roman quip probably […]

August Smith / 7.24.19

Solvitur ambulando, or “It is solved by walking,” in Latin — a Roman quip probably effused on one of the many roads that leads to (or from) the travertine city. Note the passive voice, which permits the speaker to omit any specific notion of what is actually solved by walking. But perhaps that’s the point — various quandaries can be remedied with the prescription of a lengthy, casual stroll, especially if it involves nature.

Most of my own recent foray into nature — a lengthy hike through the shadowy pine woods of Virginia — was spent waving a flimsy stick in front of my face in a futile effort to expunge at least some of the spider webs that seemed to stretch across the path every 10 feet. (Does anyone even use these trails?) I was reminded that I genuinely do like the idea of walking; the only parts I don’t like are mosquitoes and spiders and mud and thirst and, oh yeah, actually putting one foot roughly two-and-a-half feet in front of the other and repeating ad literally nauseum.

It’s hard to cherish walking when there are so many more convenient modes of transportation. Walking comes at the high price of time and energy and boredom and a noticeable lack of non-sweaty shirts, while driving or even biking take significantly less effort (and perspiration) and are certainly more expedient. Taking a stroll, furthermore, means no air conditioning or heat; it’s to brave the elements in all their treachery. So much so that a short walk during the less congenial half of the the year anywhere north of 40° latitude often means staking your life on nature’s caprice.

I try to convince myself that yes, I really do enjoy walking. But I don’t. I occasionally endure the 10-minute walk to Bodo’s Bagels for lunch, desperately romanticizing it as sticking it to Big Oil and flying in the face of a culture of optimum efficiency. I liken myself to Wordsworth: “Sweet was the walk on the narrow lane.” But it’s hard to savor walking when it’s so, well, unsavory. Wordsworth himself was indeed an avid proponent of walking, describing it as a crucial facet of rural living that proved to be the “better soil” of the placid poetic life. This conviction was not merely mental, however, as over the course of his lifetime he putatively racked up over 180,000 miles on his feet (I’d be lucky if I flew that far).

Wordsworth walked, at least intermittently, to solve something; the poet, like many creatives, respected the deep well of imaginative power accessible during a simple stroll. Walking is universally construed as the perennial cure for writer’s block, wherein “thoughts are stirred, which leads to creativity, to a verse or a paragraph.” Indeed, I conceived much of this essay on that short walk to get my bagel, hurriedly jotting down my jumbled thoughts on a sticky note upon arrival. And there is truly something to it; writers across time and place repute the almost magical effects of walking on the stagnant mind. But there also seems to be something superficial about this — I’m not walking because I find pleasure in it; I walk because it stimulates and enables creative thinking (and brings me closer to bagels — two birds with one stone!). I walk because. 

Walking becomes an extension of working, morphing from an end into a means in an attempt to maximize one’s creative output. In a poignant essay describing what we can only call the “seculosity of walks,” Michael LaPointe describes how this innocuous pastime has been co-opted by productivity.

The more conscious writers become of its creative benefits, the more walking takes on the quality of goal-driven labor, the very thing we are meant to be marching against. The hazard was always there. William Hazlitt gestures toward it in his entry in Beneath My Feet. “When I am in the country,” he writes, “I wish to vegetate like the country.” If he begins to feel that he has to produce a piece of writing from his walks, like “my old friend Coleridge,” then he’s “making a toil of a pleasure.” […]

[A]gain and again in the literature of walking, a stroll is portrayed as a working method … I realized that as a writer, I never walk without working. On Wordsworth’s better soil, I’ve built an office. In Kagge’s inner silence, my keyboard chatters away. I don’t need to buy anything from LifeSpan, because I already walk upon an invisible treadmill desk, constantly channeling the powers beneath my feet into the next paycheck. What would it mean, for once, simply to walk and say nothing about it?

Writers are not alone in making “making a toil of a pleasure”; humans are remarkably adept at ascribing objectives (or laws) to pastimes whose raison d’être is otherwise conceived as pleasure. Walking is very seldom done for its own sake; people generally walk to contemplate (Hemingway) or ruminate (Thoreau) or meditate (Thomas Jefferson) or deliberate (Nietzsche), among many other “-ates.” While all these ancillary activities are doubtlessly worthy ends in themselves, they are nonetheless objectives ideally achieved by walking. Wordsworth’s prized possession has been recast as another cog in the machine of the aspirational life, a tool by which one might achieve a clearer mind or burn a couple calories here and there or stockpile as much vitamin D as possible before the advent of that dreaded, less congenial half. It has become a tool harnessed by the likes of the treadmill and Fitbit. In essence, pedestrians often walk to.

Nor is walking alone in this susceptibility. Parents subject their toddlers to hours of Mozart to make them smarter or read because it will make them happier. Distraught adolescents journal for catharsis and their middle-aged parents laud the health benefits of jogging. This is not to say that these corollary benefits are anything but beneficent or that these aims are in any way maligned, but it is to insist that they are just that: corollary. Mozart didn’t write his symphonies to make babies smarter, Wordsworth didn’t write poems to make people happy, and I think it’s safe to say that God didn’t walk in the cool of the evening to clear his mind.

Even the phrase “take a walk” itself seems emblematic of the latent desire to possess a thing rather than legitimize it in itself. (Why do we take a walk, rather than do or have a walk?) The act of walking is often something that, like classical music and literature, is named and claimed, taken for our own use and optimized for productivity. But something seems to be lost when we take a walk for any purpose other than walking’s sake. What if, once in a while, instead of exclusively walking to or for or because, we ditched the prepositions and simply walked? Imagine a time in which the constraints and demands which suffuse contemporary life are shed in favor of an action taken for no sake but its own. It’s a relinquishing of control, a concession that, just maybe, there should be times in which we can do nothing except be.

Of course, walking with no express purpose may seem just as purposeful as walking to deliberate or ruminate or even pandiculate. But there is something different, something particularly acute about simply doing nothing. After all, the sum of the human contribution to grace is, in fact, nothing at all. God’s walking alongside oneself is made clearer only by the distinct lack of a frivolous agenda and the profound presence of a God who will drag a sinner along with him, one foot in front of the other, ad nauseum. 

And God surely doesn’t mind a good walk. Kosuke Koyama coined the phrase “Three Mile an Hour God,” a truism that profoundly illustrates God’s surprisingly limited speedometer. Godspeed is thus an admonition not to speed up, but to slow all the way down to roughly 3.1 mph — the pace at which the average person walks — the same modest clip at which God, being the human he was, sauntered around Galilee some 2,000 years ago.

So take a walk. Godspeed!

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3 responses to “Taking a Walk? Godspeed!”

  1. Bob McEver says:

    I walk a trail in the woods almost every day and am drawn to do this as a way of working through the experiences of my day/week/month-but I have never named it as such-to contemplate, ruminate, meditate, or deliberate- but now that you mention it, that’s exactly what I do and am so fond of doing.

    Since I don’t have to come back with any concrete ideas to put pen to paper with I utterly cherish this time to try and put perspective to things that have come at me that day from all angles and agendas and I get to seek God’s advice and wisdom juxtaposed to my natural inclinations to react in ways that, without this time, might spin totally out of control.

    Anyway, thanks for focusing on this great pastime.

    • August Smith says:

      Exactly! It absolutely can be a wonderfully reflective and regulatory experience, and one of the most powerful ways that can occur is through the lack of an agenda. Thanks for the kind words.

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