Several years ago, while visiting my grandparents in the central Pennsylvania mountains, my sisters and I went out for a long walk. It was a brown winter afternoon in a depressed area. We walked along the empty, curving road, remarking on the things we passed: a repair shop with misspelled words on the sign; some goats in a frozen barnyard.
Then came the moment that has made me remember that walk. After an hour or so, we happened on a field, as brown as all the others, and saw a path. We followed it to a wooden dock. Beneath the dock, overgrown with grass, lay a wide, dried-up lake bed. On the far end of the empty lake stood a pretty stone house with a willow tree in front, a peaceful sort of place. For us, it was a sudden encounter with a past, beautiful time. We felt that we had happened upon a hidden gem. You could almost imagine that this was an invisible lake, and we were permitted to glimpse the border of a place that was still bright and alive.
The scene affected us partly because our walk was an adventure on unfamiliar roads. I think, though, that it startled us the way it did because we had already walked for a long time through a drab landscape, and the place was like a vision at the end of a journey. By the time we reached it, we had begun to merge, as Wordsworth would say, with the countryside.
People who like to walk will tell you many similar stories of being surprised out of themselves in the midst of an ordinary walk. That’s why they walk. Because of gyms and cars and indoor forms of leisure, walking is less popular than it used to be. But according to the world’s greatest walkers, “sauntering” (as Thoreau calls it) will always be an excellent remedy for your most severe ills.
There are three especially deadly symptoms common to our time that I believe walking can help alleviate.
The First Ill: Sentimentality
We children of the twentieth century are used to getting something for nothing—or almost nothing. You press a button, and your dishes get clean. Veer five minutes off the highway, and you can almost always find ready-made burgers and fries.
Sentimental emotion is like fast-food; it’s cheap emotion, and it provides meager nourishment. Oscar Wilde defines sentimentality as “the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it”–without having to engage with the person or thing that triggers the emotions. Stock love stories, nostalgic melodies, and sensational news stories can all trigger emotion that is borrowed—and passes away as easily as it came. Probably the occasional chick flick or tear-jerker movie never hurt anyone, but you can’t sustain a healthy emotional and aesthetic life on sentimentality.
Walking prevents us from becoming sentimental about “nature.” Postcard beauty viewed through air conditioned windows may stir warm feelings or remind you of days past, but you don’t have an experience of nature until you get out into the world and work to understand the mood of the landscape—to see, feel, smell, and hear everything that is there.
If you’ve ever gone hiking in a national park, you’ve learned that the real thing isn’t like the calendar photographs. To get in to a place—to know a “sense of place” –you must engage with it on its own terms, which often include bugs, dirt, and sweat. But these sensations, pleasant or unpleasant, key you in to the season and the mood—the “quiddity,” as C.S. Lewis famously called it. When he went for a walk, Lewis liked to
attempt a total surrender to whatever atmosphere was offering itself at the moment; in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge. There was no Betjemanic irony about it; only a quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was.
Walking forces you outside of your comfortable emotions and into a place—with all its idiosyncrasies and unexpected surprises.
The Second Ill: “Angelism”
Angelism, as described by Walker Percy, is “the excessive abstraction of the self from itself.” You may know it: the feeling that you are out of touch with your surroundings, that you are a brain orbiting the world and peering at its drama from the outside. For the hapless characters in Percy’s novels, it manifests itself in peculiar symptoms: amnesia, altered sense of time, restlessness, obsession with sex and violence as a way of “re-entering” from orbit, malaise, and constant malfunction in social and romantic relationships. Those who suffer from angelism can’t inhabit the present moment or even their own skin in a satisfying way.
This malady is especially severe among academics and people who sit all day in office buildings, working their brains and mostly ignoring their bodies. The busyness and hurry of modern life make it difficult to live as a body in the world. Percy, however, sees deeper philosophical roots. Ever since we accepted Descartes’ dualistic understanding of the human person, we have been confused about questions of identity. Is a human an animal, or a god, or both? Are we spirits connected to bodies, or just bodies? Now that scientists can explain everything in terms of chemical reactions, what does it mean to be an embodied soul? We are uncertain about the value of the body because we no longer understand the place of the self in the cosmos.
Whatever the cause of this alienation from the physical world, if you suffer from it, the treatment is fairly simple: quit the gym and head outdoors. Traveling on foot is one way to get in touch with ourselves and the world. Wordsworth wrote much of his poetry during or right after his walks. Thoreau, who walked for at least four hours every day, writes, “In my walks I would fain return to my senses.”
In her charming book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit argues that walking is the best way to tie your abstracted mind back down to earth and re-embody it. Walking slows your mind down to a human pace. It can even be an opportunity to turn off your racing thoughts for a while. Walking also makes imminent an array of tastes, feelings, smells, sounds, and color blends, unfolding over time. These sensations force you to be aware of your body, helping you materialize in a place.
The Third Ill: Boredom
All the philosophers say that ennui—general boredom not attached to a particular thing or event—is a phenomenon of modernity. Boredom is characterized by indifference and a kind of vertigo, in which the self loses its bearings and its sense of identity. Those experiencing boredom often begin to doubt the sufficiency of reality, and they feel a malaise from which they fear they can never break free. I guess that nearly everyone has experienced this kind of boredom at some point, and some experience it often. The twentieth century philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote extensively about boredom and what to do about it.
Talking or thinking about boredom is dangerous, as Heidegger knew, because in the process you are likely to awaken your own paralyzing boredom. He argues that boredom underlies our daily existence, threatening to break through, and we are all busy trying our utmost to distract ourselves from it. But courage, dear reader! Don’t flee yet. Because, as Heidegger argues, turning around to face your boredom is the healthiest thing you can do.
Boredom, according to Heidegger, is an encounter with homelessness, placelessness, or emptiness. It is another kind of alienation from, or repudiation of, the present moment in time. Because boredom is so oppressive, people medicate it with whatever distraction is easiest—alcohol, food, TV, Facebook, Twitter.
Heidegger argues that the problem of our age is the abundance of inane pursuits technology has made available, that prevent us from ever having to recognize that we are bored. But profound boredom offers, as Jan Slaby puts it, “the possibility of getting to know how things stand with regard to our existence as such.”
The only way to really defeat the specter of boredom, when it arises, is to turn and face it. You must take hold of the painful present moment and use the opportunity to figure out who you are, where you are going, and whether you really believe life holds sufficient meaning. It is a chance to get back into the NOW—which is the condition for enjoying love, happiness, and real leisure—rather than desperately reaching out of your boredom for a later moment or another distraction.
Walking provides a safe mode in which to confront boredom and cross unharmed to the other side. We busy ourselves to avoid feeling bored, but forcing yourself into a sudden completely idle state can be overwhelming. Walking allows you to be idle in the midst of doing something. As Solnit puts it, “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them.” And if, in your wanderings, you succeed in curing the first and second ills detailed above—i.e. you enter into a rich sensory experience of the world and find real aesthetic pleasure—then, when boredom comes to you, you should be equipped with some weapons to face it head-on.