Monday, March 2, 2015

Why Walk?

Darwin and Wallace Stevens were known to take long walks. On the way from my car to the office this morning, walking over the asphalt, the snow, and the ice, I had a thought that I have had at least hundreds of times before. It’s an unpleasant, anxious thought: should I be focusing on what I am doing right this instant, or should I be thinking about what is coming up, about being in my office, hanging up my jacket, and what I will do to approach the day?
            On the one hand, I have the voice of the Buddhist, and all that it has influenced, plus the analogous traditions—the Stoics, for one--, which says to Be Present. And, when that voice comes to mind, I have so many agreeing thoughts: if I am always thinking about what will come up, I am never paying attention to what is happening; accidents happen when one is distracted, and I hate clumsy people, always falling and injuring themselves; I can think about what I will do in the office once I get in there; actively looking around, being inquisitive and engaged in what is happening now, is the best preparation for the future.
            These thoughts ring true, but they also trouble me, because they are, though coherent, incomplete, lop-sided, because on the other hand, I have the voice of a dozen books, and my own experience: mental preparation and rehearsal is one of the surest ways to ensure success; failing to plan is planning to fail; staying trapped in this instant means I am subject to the vicissitudes of fate and the will of others; if I wait to get into the office before thinking about what I will do there, if I only see myself there when I am physically there, instead of seeing myself there in advance, anticipating the moment, then being there feels like another instance in a strange series of incompletely anticipated and understood events, and I just sit down, stare at my screen, wondering in bewilderment what I should do next; this is how I have lived almost the entirety of my life. The lack of directedness towards a goal seems to infect the attainment of the goal with a meaninglessness. Or, maybe better put, absence of intentionality in achieving a larger goal results in all the steps to achieve it, as well as the achievement itself, being devoid of significance. Events just happen, regardless of how much energy I expended to make them happen; the vagueness of my intentionality, its insufficiency, makes it almost more that they happened to me than I produced them. (Of course, in reality, there is some truth to this, as the asphalt and the presence of the office have as much to do to my making it to them as my effort, but this is larger philosophical issue that has limited application in this context.) And, moving away from this method, to a more imaginative, forward-thinking method seems to have been responsible for many or most of the improvements in my quality of life.     
            This last thought in particular, concerning how responsible thinking ahead has been for my quality of life is tricky, for in the one sense it is true in an unpleasant way: imagining, fearing, and working to prevent worst case scenarios made me excel in my last job, in which I always feared product contamination, and was maniacal in attempting to prevent it; but in the sense of imagining  positive outcomes and working to achieve them, this has been an activity I have only engaged in for brief periods. It seems to me as if those brief periods have been very influential on the rest of what would come, but then I must consider how, also, paying attention to the present, not making stupid mistakes, paying attention to details, has maintained my quality of life.
            And in this maelstrom of competing ideas—and I call it a maelstrom because it is an anxious place; I do not feel hopeful in it that I will resolve this conflict--, I see the solution in the form of a minor daydream: I see myself walking outside, along a footpath. I imagine, in a passing instant, Darwin, and Stevens, and Thoreau. I realize that long walks are an answer to this question, because in them one is able to do both: to pay attention to the present, to observe nature and its details, but, in being out for an hour or so, they are able to routinize and minimize the attention to their steps and the path for periods; they are able to think about the future.
            Not only are they able to think about the future, I think, deliberately, as their attention to the path is minimized, but they are able to think about it unconsciously, as the path becomes their focus again. And, not only are they able to focus on the future, as if it were in isolation from the present, but they are able to think about the future as an extension of the present. I think walking itself is conducive to this mode, this relationship—what is the difference between the step one is taking, and the step one is about to take? They are on a continuum. It is only technically true that something might prevent Thoreau from reaching the next tree or the next bend; in reality, he reaches it so nearly every time, that the exceptions stand out and are remarkable, but for that very  reason are, in a way trivial. We almost always reach our mark when we are walking. And, if this isn’t so, then we are in some treacherous territory, and our thoughts ought to be on that very fact about our lives, not anything more speculative. And, isn’t that a pleasant model for thinking about the future? If one can walk around as one pleases, then they should do so, and think about more ambitious plans. If they can’t, then they have their work set out for them. In this way, walking around freely is an expression of what we have achieved, or our ancestors have achieved for us, and, in claiming that privilege, we wonder what’s next.