The walking cure: when an injury forced me to slow down, I learned that we can only amble our way to wisdom

Modern life is stuck on a treadmill and its pace exceeds human limits. What would it look like to step off?

I can’t run right now – or what, for me, passes for running. I must walk, and I hate it. A tear in my right calf muscle has exposed me as a walking cliche of middle-class, middle-aged life: I overcompensate for a desk-bound existence through bursts of physical exercise, but now with painful results.

This 43-year-old body isn’t what she used to be.

While I make a reluctant novice, the spiritual worth of walking is dawning on me – slowly, obviously. The saying goes, “walk before you run”, or, master the basics before you level up. But in a world obsessed with speed, running might be less an ideal and more the conformist choice.

Wisdom might instead back the slower pace that walking, as opposed to running, embodies – especially if we want to remain human in a world that can feel anything but.

I know I’m not alone in feeling swamped every bloody day, and that I must run at everything to keep up. I’m all for running for the love of it – actual running, and the kind where you throw yourself into something with gusto. But when running feels forced on us, becoming the default mode to tackle life, then I have a problem.

My need to hurry, then, is partly why I have an issue with walking. It’s half a stage of life thing: as a full-time working parent of primary-aged children, I belong to that cohort who reports feeling always or often rushed for time.

Us mums, however, are at the pointy end of something more chronic.

Twenty-five years ago, US author James Gleick called out the “acceleration of just about everything” – and this was before we knew how fast things could be (and still get). Next-day delivery and 1.5x listening speeds didn’t exist back then, but they do now, all priming us to believe that faster is better and efficiency is everything. To deliberately slow down, then, feels like failure.

But anything that grows your soul takes time. There are no shortcuts to hard-won insight; you can only amble your way to wisdom.

Sometimes literally. Now that I can’t run like someone who actually runs, I’m stepping out in my new neighbourhood. Besides discovering how not-so-walkable it is, I’m still experiencing it in a way that would elude me if I only saw it from a car, or through GPS navigation. GPS doesn’t do aimless wandering since it’s another instance of the “efficiency is everything” school. But maybe that ramble along a path you’ve never noticed before is an important way that we come to an embodied love of place.

In the face of the industrial development of his time (“all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”), the 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented that “nor can foot feel, being shod” (he would’ve been an early adopter of earthing, or the therapeutic and wellbeing benefits of walking barefoot). Hopkins’ point was that humankind had lost a fundamental connection with ourselves, and the natural world, in its rush to embrace technological progress. Almost 200 years later, we’re still stuck on this treadmill – and its pace exceeds human limits.

What would it look like to step off? This is no easy option – in a world beholden to endless economic growth, I don’t see next-generation Nietzsches announcing that the God known as The Economy is dead. But even if we can’t simply quit the accelerating life, we can ever so slightly deprogram ourselves from its fast and furious pace.

For me, I keep in mind a tiny glimpse of paradise to power my modest resistance. Specifically, a poetic image from the Bible’s creation story: “the man and the woman heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day”.

Granted, it’s not an altogether happy scene. The human pair are about to discover the penalties of reaching beyond human limits (sound familiar?) in eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Their looming fate is ours too: we all live “east of Eden”.

But, while brief, the remaining detail is suggestive. Heaven is human beings walking with each other and God in his perfect place. There’s no need to rush. The world and its infinite pleasures will unfold themselves in their own sweet time and will be there for us to discover, together. The daily walk and talk, reviewing the day just gone, while being present to those you love, is the heart-, mind- and soul-wandering that is deeply restful, and the way every day should end.

I long for that kind of pace and the deep attention and connection it implies. Till then, I’ll bury my nose in the neighbourhood jasmine on my rambles and say a prayer, asking for continued help and sustenance in putting one foot in front of the other.

I’m staking my hope on what I’m calling – what else – the walking cure.

Justine Toh is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity

This article first appeared on The Guardian.


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