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Friday, August 15, 2014

The Walking Cure

 -- by Tom Phillips

                       “Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do,
                        But there ain’t no cure for the Summertime Blues.”
                                                                                    -- Eddie Cochran 

Ever since I was a teenager I have suffered from the Summertime Blues – the aimlessless, hopelessness, boredom and loneliness that result from long days of humid heat, and the collapse of the structures of ordinary time.  What are you going to do? 

This summer I stumbled on an answer.   Browsing in my favorite bookstore, the Labyrinth on 112th Street, I came across a new work by a French philosopher, Frederic Gros, called “A Philosophy of Walking.”   I’ve always been a walker – for transportation, exercise, and mental hygiene – but I never thought of this humble activity as a way of life, as a meaningful act in itself. 

Gros treats it that way. “Walking is not a sport,” he begins.  He writes about famous thinkers and writers for whom it was the essential activity:  Rousseau walked to recover his original, uncorrupted humanity;  Rimbaud walked to escape, to move on, to exhaust his body and mind.  Wordsworth walked to feel the natural rhythms of poetry.  Thoreau walked through the woods to simplify his existence, Nietzsche climbed mountains to drive his thought to its peaks.  Kant walked for discipline, and to relieve his constipation.  Gandhi walked for independence, for peace and freedom.    

Inspired, I tried organizing my life around walking.  And I found that three walks a day can relieve aimlessness, hopelessness, boredom and loneliness, and yield great benefits beyond. 


The bored person wanders around the house, wondering what to do. The walker, setting out, has nothing to do but walk, put one foot in front of the other, repeat and repeat.  The eyes no longer wonder or wander, they focus on the path, the surroundings.  The arms move in opposition to the feet, adding balance and momentum.  With trekking poles in hand, they also add propulsion.  Just by stepping out of the house and beginning to move, the walker has gone from aimlessness to purposeful activity. 

The fruits of walking are copious.  Besides the obvious benefits of exercise, structure and discipline, it can be the basis of social life.  Every day as I walk in my neighborhood, I meet people I know:  friends, neighbors, former colleagues, random people from the past.  These encounters are not fraught with expectation and dread, like a dinner party.  They’re spontaneous and unstructured; they last as long as both parties wish, and usually end in smiles or laughter.  Such meetings are a basic source of information in a neighborhood -- opportunities to trade news, jokes, opinions and concerns.  Recently I ran into a casual friend whose father had just died; he was distraught, and poured out feelings I had never known about.  These were not things he wanted to tell me personally.  He just wanted to talk to somebody, and there I was.   So now our friendship is a little less casual, at least on my side.    

Walking, as Gros demonstrates, can also be the basis of philosophy.  Some thinkers work hunched at a desk, poring over information.   Meditators focus their minds on one thing, or nothing, while seated immobile on a cushion.   But the best thought, he suggests, is meditation in action.  Walking doesn’t so much focus the mind as let it loose to play; it’s available, adventuring where it wants, following its own guide.  The result of deskbound study is often reflections on others’ reflections.  Seated meditation may produce blinding insight for the individual, but usually nothing new for humanity.  Walking outdoors yields the greatest intellectual treasures, the fruit of a mind stimulated by bodily action, combining thoughts, feelings, and impressions into original, new ideas.

Finally, walking is a social and political statement.   Riding in a taxi I feel a kinship with the elite of the city – in a hurry, places to go, people to see, deals to make.   Riding the subway I feel a kinship with the middle classes – schlepping, working, schlepping home again or out someplace.  On foot, I feel kinship with the poor, and the poorest.  The person who has nothing walks.  Gros calls this “the essential destitution of humankind.” 

I think of the “canners,” the guys who trudge the streets all day, collecting discarded cans and bottles.  At the end of a long day they walk bent over under a huge bag of containers, worth a few dollars at the few places that will redeem them.  These are their wages, and they’ll have to walk still farther to collect them.  

Walking is a protest, an act of solidarity with the poor.  It rejects and shames the culture of speed, technology, and violence that surrounds us.  Walking is slow, non-violent, and completely no-tech.   The walker has no barrier of metal between him and the world -- he’s completely vulnerable.  But walking is not for losers.  Gandhi walked the length and breadth of India, confounding the British superiority in speed, technology and violence.  Martin Luther King walked through the hostile south to shame racist America.  And they won their battles, though they paid with their lives.     

There is power in walking; it’s a human being’s most fundamental declaration of independence.  Anyone can walk, or at least anyone with two working legs.  A year ago I lost the use of one leg because of a ruptured spinal disk, the worst injury of my life.  A year later I still can’t run, jump or dance.  If you believe my neurologist, I may never run, jump or dance again.  But I can walk, and that makes all the difference.

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips