The Art of Strolling and Other Countercultural Leisures

Typically I’m a very fast walker.  In former times it wasn’t uncommon for people to beg me to slow down.  At this point in time I was using walking as a form of exercise, but since I get that in other ways now, I have begun to slow down.  I have learned very quickly what I’ve been missing and what I’ve failed to notice in my haste.

A few weeks ago I got restless at 3am and headed out for a stroll around the neighborhood, deliberately setting a snail’s pace.  It took me an hour to go less than a mile, round trip, and I learned more about my own neighborhood in that hour than I had in the previous three years.  I did not know, for instance, that there were two or three doctor’s offices right around the corner from my apartment.  (They tastefully blend in with the surrounding residences, elegant retorts to modern zoning laws.)  Nor did I fully appreciate the innate beauty of many of  the old houses around here.  I previously had some idea, but not a complete idea of their handsome architecture.  It is one thing to look; it is another thing entirely to see.   Cornices are not at street level, perhaps because man is not meant to spend the entirety of his existence in the gutter.

A solitary walk such as the one I’ve described has a way of putting you back together, of making you an integrated person again.  I dare say this is considered a seditious act by modern society, which prostrates its laptop computers in front of the altar of function.  A “good citizen” is someone who gets stuff done and eschews leisure.  The worth of a man in America has an almost direct correlation to the number of widgets he makes, unless he’s a government employee, in which case he’s a “public servant,” even if his work is actually deleterious, such as papering over the truth with dishonest statistics at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or profiting from illegal wars of foreign aggression.  But I digress.  A wholly integrated man is fast becoming a lost art.  I have lived my entire life in the Age of Utility, and sometimes I wonder if my generation’s existential angst doesn’t have something to do with this fragmentary existence.  A man who is merely an agent runs the risk of being a persona rather than a personality; a man with an office but not a home.  Such a person cannot know who he is, and he is therefore more likely to be tossed about by every wind that assails his ship.  A man who takes time to put himself back together is more equipped to resist ill-advised trends and is therefore useless, and even dangerous, in the eyes of the social engineers.

There is a poignant scene near the end of the movie Shawshank Redemption.  Brooks, who’d been in prison for decades for I-don’t-remember-what, is released, gets an apartment and a job bagging groceries at a local market.  Unaccustomed to the sped-up ways of the modern world, he laments that everyone went off and got themselves “in a damn hurry.”  He ends his life hanging from a rope.

I saw reference once to this scene on another libertarian website, and the author of the post didn’t seem to have much sympathy for Brooks, who, in his mind, couldn’t get with the program.  There was meant to be some sort of lesson viz. capitalism in these remarks, but it seems to me that capitalism becomes dangerous when its proportions are allowed to become inhuman, when we cease to run the market and the market instead runs us.  This is not a call for regulation; it is a reminder that capitalism gives us the freedom to say no, to insist that we have the leisure that we need in order to keep ourselves in tune.  Heaven knows that this isn’t possible with highly centrally planned economies, in which every citizen has a material measure on his “duty” which must be lived up to.  But the question remains:  Why do we let the market run us?  No government intervention into labor law could do half as much good as a populace that finally decides that it isn’t worth it to work three jobs just to have the condo or the SUV.

Materialism is an obvious culprit here.  I hesitate to use the word because it is routinely abused by the Temperance Union types who still fret routinely that—in the words of H.L. Mencken—someone, somewhere may be having fun.  But there is no good substitute for this term when discussing a culture that would rather buy toys than have a reasonable amount of time each week to take a few leisurely walks—or, God forbid, read a book.  There is a delicious irony here, though.  Both the materialists and the Professional Frowners of the Modern Era seem to conflate materialism with happiness and joy, but it seems to me that they are, if not mutually exclusive, certainly not necessarily related.  Modern life is more like a frenzy or an orgy, more akin to the storm that takes place in the mind that has been seized by passion.  How much genuine happiness is really to be found?  Go ahead and dismiss this question as a mere reflection of the author’s own misery, but remember to ask it again the next time you’re faced with a sidewalk full of blank faces walking from the blue-grey cubicles of our nondescript skyscrapers to the moldy tunnels of the subway.  At the same time, while we buy all this crap that we fill our houses with, the art of celebrating festivals fades into history.  Just the other day someone pointed out to me that Thanksgiving is now a “minor holiday”:  After the Halloween decorations are taken down, the Christmas trees go up—and we all know what Christmas has turned into.  The atrophy of feasts began by the 15th century at the latest, when English businessmen and landowners griped about all the Holy Days (holidays) on the calendar, during which it was illegal to work.  Ever since then there has been a fairly steady progression, through Protestantism, to that contemporary sensation that we are all unwilling passengers on a giant conveyor belt which pauses only a few times annually for President’s Day, Earth Day, and—-what should I call it?—the Winter Solstice.  This is not joy; it is a self-imposed slavery so that we can—pace George Carlin—buy more stuff.

Never mind the big festivals, though.  Most of us can’t even stand the thought of one day of rest per week.  It is not uncommon for me to offer to friends the unsolicited advice that they need one day a week that belongs solely to them—or to God, if they’re so inclined.  A complete day off seems to many people to be a total waste, and by a day off I don’t mean a day of running back and forth between Target, Wal-Mart, and soccer practice.  I mean a total day with nothing in particular planned, with the possible exception of a nice dinner.  This is rank heresy in the modern milieu.  When you take a day off yer’ not gittin’ stuff done, and that’s un-American and a traitorous act towards whichever cause you’ve adopted for life.  Since I’m a musician I know many workaholics like this.  The devotion is beautiful; the consequences are not.  And people wonder why they end up with a bad drinking habit.  The curious thing is that a society like ours, which bases so much of its pride on the stuff it gits done, has completely lost sight not only of the value of non-material things, but also of the law of diminishing returns:  an overworked man not only has no time to make creative space for himself and to ponder the meaning of his own existence, he also is less effective in his functionalism.   Materialism eventually devours itself.

In situations where most of life’s happiness is focused on sensate pleasures, “discipline” can often be considered a dirty word.  There may be another way to look at this concept, however.  Discipline is not just about doing enough push-ups every morning or studying hard enough or putting in the requisite number of overtime hours.  It can also be employed to secure right proportion in the way one’s life is lived.  There is a very famous piece of Gregorian chant which begins, Gaudete.  That is Latin, and it is the imperative form of “rejoice.”  There are no conditions or delays attached to it:  Rejoice.  Now.  The proper cultivation of joy is essential to a life well-lived and it takes effort in any era, even in one of relative health such as ours.  It cannot be guaranteed by anything and can only come into being if we are willing to do what’s necessary to get off the conveyor belt of cubicle servitude, soccer practices, and the concern du jour pushed by the news media.

None of these remarks should be mistaken as a tract against material progress.  The labor saving devices invented since the industrial revolution are great tributes to the ingenuity of mankind.  We can get so much more done in so much less time, and yet our ancestors seemed to be better at the art of leisure than we are.  Material wealth be damned; they took time for the soul.  Thanks to modern technology we would not have to pay as high a price as they did, but it remains for us to take advantage of the opportunity and to build lives that are duly proportioned.  This applies no less to yours truly than it does to anyone else.

3 Responses

  1. Well welcome to the ranks of the reserve army (or should i say, infantry) of the boulavadiers!

    Walking strikes me as a notably libertarian thing to do. Walkers, unlike users of state subsidised mass transit or the government road system, have (if you pardon the pun) a smaller footprint. Not just a smaller carbon footprint (nothing wrong with that even if you don’t think the planet is about to melt) but a smaller tax consumer / government owned land footprint. It is the low aggression alternative.

    Walkers are, generally speaking, also less subject to the big fat nose of big brother.

    One of the interesting things about the city of Venice is that walking is the main way to get around. As a consequence people have a good idea how long it takes to get from here to there. Where people use automobiles, traffic is very hard to predict and trip duration varies much more than with walking trips.

    Walking is good for your fitness, the local environment and, now (if you must), thanks to cell phones and iPods, can be quite high tech. Walking can be quite sociable and encourages you to frequent local shops, cafes and bars as way stations. It is also good for your mind. Since becoming a foot commuter I have discovered I have more time to mull over the problems of the day whether at home or work.

  2. One of the better things I have done lately was to obtain a dog who needs a lot of regular exercise. He can’t be left alone in the yard because he’s too good at digging, so we walk twice and sometimes thrice a day, for half an hour or more each time.

    Sometimes I walk him by myself, and sometimes my husband and I walk him together. We’ve met people we might not otherwise have spoken too, and gotten ideas from the neighbors’ landscaping and holiday decorations as we ambled past. My husband and I have many more conversations unimpeded by the lure of gadgets.

    I have sometimes gone for walks in the past, but I’ve always been inconsistent about it. Now that I have a dog who tries to dig up the carpet if I don’t exercise him, I am forced into consistency about this–and find joy in it.

  3. [...] this way, too. One important thing: Walk slow. This is not exercise; it is not a task. It is leisure, and that’s ok. Not every important thing in life has to do with making money or taking care [...]

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