Wednesday, March 30, 2022

From the A.I. Archives: Does Your Walk Need a Purpose? (No, it Doesn't)

Note: The following first appeared in issue #3 of Alternative Incite magazine.

Ours is truly the age of brow-beating media. I dare you to spend five minutes on the Internet and not come across some article telling you how you are (or ought to be) feeling, and what you ought to be doing to live a happier, more meaningful, and more successful life. There are articles that tell us how we’re feeling about the pandemic, “listicles” telling us what we need to do to be more productive or our “best selves,” and now, how to “give purpose” to your daily walk.

To be fair, Amy Fleming, author of "The Joy of Steps: 20 Ways to Give Purpose to Your Daily Walk" (The Guardian, January 18, 2021), does not claim that your current approach to walking is somehow wrong. Rather, the aim of this article is to motivate those walking who are finding it hard to get moving during the winter months, when things tend to be cold, damp, gray, and generally blah outside. As an avid walker, I agree with her. It is generally less pleasant to amble about in the cold. Nevertheless, I disagree with her approach to countering this seasonal malaise.

She begins harmlessly enough, reminding readers about benefits of getting outside regardless of the weather; namely exercise and the need to be out in daylight so we can regulate our circadian rhythms. But, then she starts with the “purpose” bullshit.

Among her suggestions are “tricking yourself” (by saying you’re only going to go out for five minutes, but then staying out longer); birding: looking for and tracking animals; learning about the plants that grow where you live; using any number of walking apps that map your route, suggest other routes, or chart your progress beyond merely counting your steps; being more mindful (being aware of your breathing, etc.); problem solving (i.e., think about something that’s bugging you); walking your usual route in reverse; raising money for charity; calling a friend and so on.

Is tricking one’s self into doing something you don’t want to do a purpose? Never mind. A better question is, must everything we do have a purpose? Can we no longer do something just because we want to? If you like to walk for the exercise or because your circadian rhythms need straightening out, then by all means, hit the bricks. But if you don’t give a shit about exercising, circadian rhythms, or birds, or vegetation, or steps and you just want to go for a stroll, well, that’s fine too.

Know what else is just fine? Not going at all. Really, if it’s cold or wet or too gloomy or all three, then stay in — and don’t feel guilty about it. Deciding not to go for a walk on Monday, doesn’t mean you won’t go on Tuesday. In fact, taking one or a few days off may make you more interested in going later. Doesn’t absence make the heart grow fonder?

However, if skipping even one day is unacceptable yet you can’t muster the motivation to step out the door, forget about coming up with a reason or purpose and just start walking. Have someone push you out if that’s what it takes, but, do it. As J. Matthew Smith said in issue #2, fuck motivation. Don’t think about it — do it. Set a schedule and then slavishly stick to it. Turn your brain off and let habit take over.

I know, I know … Fleming is just trying to be helpful. I get it. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if, after reading this article, I didn’t tell you that I enjoy my walks less when I try to infuse them with purpose. As I wrote about in issue #1, whenever I tell myself I’m going to use my walk to mull something I’m reading or want to write about, it never worked. My mind would go running off in some unforeseen direction and, by the time I got home, I felt a little bummed that I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. Now, I do the opposite. I just let my mind go where it wants. In doing so, my walks have become much more relaxing, restorative, and enjoyable. It’s not something I aim for, it’s not a task I saddle myself with, it just happens and it happens because I let it, because I’m not preoccupied with achieving some goal.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. By not weighing my walks down with a task or goal, my evening strolls around the neighborhood have become my way to unwind. Wouldn’t that be their purpose then?

The truth is all our activities have a purpose, even if we we’re not aware of what it might be. This, I suppose, is where purpose meets productivity, and it further explains why I found Fleming’s article so irritating. The reason she wants to infuse your walk with purpose is that, like far too many uptight dwellers in the Digital Age, the idea of downtime makes her uncomfortable.

Must we be productive every waking moment? Of course not. No one is that productive (those who say otherwise are liars), nor should we be. I’m not alone in this sentiment, either. Even Inc. magazine, which recently published an article titled, “Why being Productive All the Time is a Fool’s Errand,” concurs.

The best way to be productive is to let yourself be less productive.
Break early, break often: Walking, quiet time, blank days, Internet unplugging and other disconnections do marvelous things to your productivity because your brain will continue to problem solve while you take in the quiet. 
If you really want to get amazing things done, then trade in busyness for productivity. And that happens best in intense cycles, not in breathless marathons.
I’m not crazy about the tone and second-person perspective in this article either, but I’ll take it because it supports the notions that 1.) people don’t have to grind all the time, and 2.) a little relaxation now may just mean more production later.

A more humane and less bossy article (despite the title), “Stop Trying to Be Productive,” from the New York Times takes this notion a step further and recognizes the role — or should I say toll — that articles like Fleming’s are having on people’s psyches during the pandemic.
As the coronavirus outbreak has brought life largely indoors, many people are feeling pressure to organize every room in their homes, become expert home chefs (or bakers), write the next “King Lear” and get in shape. The Internet — with its constant stream of how-to headlines and viral challenges — has only reinforced the demand to get things done.

This Times article addresses this pressure by referencing a related screed from the New Republic titled, “Against Productivity in a Pandemic,” that labels such productivity pressure “obscene.”

This mindset is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture — the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement. And in a literal pandemic, as millions of us are trying to practice home isolation while also attending to the needs of our families and communities, the obscenity of pretending that work and “the self” are the only things that matter — or even exist — becomes harder to ignore.
I agree, but I think the fact that we’re currently living in the midst of a pandemic is ancillary to the larger issue. Yes, things are different now, but should the day come when the coronavirus is no longer a concern, the need to relax, disconnect, and just be in the world, without the constant pressure to be doing something productive, will remain. This is not a call to sloth, it’s a plea for sanity.

As much as it curdles the cream of productivity experts” everywhere, we need downtime. I’m not alone in this thinking, either. Back in 2014, BBC News published the article, “The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking,” that bemoans the loss of walking for no other reason than to disconnect and be alone with our thoughts, whatever they might be:
… walking for any distance is usually a planned leisure activity. Or a health aid. Something to help people lose weight. Or keep their fitness. But there's something else people get from choosing to walk. A place to think.
To prove it’s point about the benefits of such purposeless walking, the article runs through the usual list of famous writer-walkers — Wordsworth, Thoreau, Dickens, George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, and so on— who relied on walking to clear their heads and entertain ideas.

Of course, the article’s author (Finlo Rohrer) recognizes that not everyone writes, so he is sure to note that, “you don't have to be an author to see the value of walking.” Not just any walking, mind you, “a particular kind of walking. Not the distance between porch and corner shop. But a more aimless pursuit.”

Okay, but doesn’t this just bring us back to where we started? If you’re using your walk to think about stuff, then aren’t you giving it a purpose? Is there such a thing as a truly “aimless pursuit”?

It seems there might be. Enter the French ‘flâneur’ — a being described as follows in Tom Hodgkinson’s stellar book, How to be Idle:
The greatest example of the attitude I am describing is the French flaneur. Flâneur literally means stroller or idler, and, in the nineteenth century, came to describe an elegant kind of gentlemanly moocher, who ambled purposelessly through the Parisian arcades, watching, waiting, handing around. His hero is Baudelaire, as an anti-bourgeois who had somehow freed himself from wage slavery and was at liberty to wander the streets with no particular place to go.
Hodgkinson is laying it on thick here (and he lays it on even thicker in his book), but he’s right to associate this sense of extreme downtime (of having no particular place to go) with freedom and liberty, because, as he so astutely notes, in our busy-for-the-sake-of-busy world, the act of going for stroll, a purposeless stroll, “is an act of revolt. It is a statement against bourgeois values, against goal-centered living, business, bustle, toil, and trouble.”

This, too, may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not. The idler, the person strolling around with no particular aim or direction, the guy just “hanging out” in the park is viewed with suspicion and is presumed to be “up to something,” whether he actually is or not. The assumption being, if you have the time to wander, you must not have a job, which means there must be something “wrong” with you. Hence our decision to make loitering a punishable offense.

Oddly enough, Wordsworth, the man celebrated for both his writing and his walking, is on record expressing his appreciation for the aimless walker, the loiterer, and the “loafer.”
How do I love the loafer! Of all human beings, none equals your genuine, inbred, unvarying loafer. Now when I say ‘loafer,’ I mean loafer; not a fellow who is lazy by fits and starts—who today will work for his twelve or fourteen hours, and tomorrow doze and idle…. Give me your calm, steady, philosophic son of indolence … he belongs to that ancient and honorable fraternity, whom I venerate above all your upstarts, your dandies, and your political oracles.
Hodgkinson is aware, of course, that we all can’t be flâneurs. Thus, he advises us to “start small” and “mooch, dawdle, [and] float” when we can, to take whatever opportunities we have to “slow down our pace and allow [our]selves to drift.” By walking this way, says Hodgkinson, we cease to be a “victim” of our world, beaten and bruised by its unending busyness, and learn to enjoy it.

From the A.I. Archives: Walking Under a Stay at Home Order

Note: The following first appeared in issue #1 of Alternative Incite magazine.  

"We longer are asking or suggesting that Marylanders stay home. We are directing them to do so,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan at a March 30, 2022, press conference. The order,* which took effect at 8 pm that night, stated “no MD resident should leave their home unless it is for an essential reason, such as obtaining food or medicine, seeking urgent medical attention, or for other necessary purposes.” 

The governor’s office didn’t elaborate on what those other “necessary purposes” might be, but it did have a warning for those tempted to test the order’s limits: State and local law enforcement are enforcing the order and violators will be charged with a misdemeanor offense. Those deemed guilty would be subject to imprisonment (not exceeding one year), a fine (not exceeding $5,000), or both.

“Wow,” I though after I heard the governor’s words. “Who would have thought it would ever come to this.”

Back in the day, when I used to run around with a group of self-proclaimed “anarchists,” we feared a reactionary, Republican-led theocracy. We never imagined the lockdown would come in response to a virus and in the interest of public health—and I never thought I’d be okay with it.

Not everyone is. As I write this, groups of Republicans convinced that the coronavirus is some deep-state conspiracy are protesting at state houses, demanding that the stay-at-home orders be lifted in the interest of “re-opening” the economy, getting folks back to work, and … you know … freedom and stuff.

I can understand the impulse. I don’t agree with it—I think it’s reckless and stupid and puts untold numbers of people at risk, including the healthcare workers everyone is depending on right now, but I get it. Americans don’t like being told what to do, even when the orders are in their best interest. We are a nation of rugged individuals and, sometimes, we take that individualism a little too far.

I don’t hang with anarchists anymore and, I’m no longer so concerned about my individuality. I understand, despite my baser impulses, that other people are just as important. Yes, I’m scared of contracting the virus and I don’t want to get sick, but I’m more worried about what getting Covid-19 might mean for my family than what it might mean for me. So, yes, while the governor’s stay-at-home order might be an affront to my freedom in that it restricts where I can go, I can see it’s also a boon to my and my family’s health. This makes complying with the order easy, and so at home I stay.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that being compelled to stay home isn’t much of an imposition. As an introvert and a homebody, I enjoy being home and, in a strange way, the pandemic has improved the experience. With everything closed and everyone ordered to stay home, my schedule has cleared, and my days have become mine again. Yes, I still have to work, but most of the things that have a negative impact on my life —the obligations that fill my schedule and push me hither and thither, commuting and traffic jams, the myriad oppressive social niceties and norms — all of it disappeared seemingly overnight. I have not lamented their absence.

Moreover, the stay-at-home order has given me more time to engage in one of my favorite pastimes: walking around the neighborhood. Pre-Coronavirus, my walks were quick jaunts taken to exercise the dogs and shake off the day. Under the stay-at-home order, my walks around the neighborhood have become a significant source of entertainment. If anyone was to ask, I’d still say these bipedal excursions were chiefly to exercise the dogs. Yet, they’re really for me. Now two to three times as long, the walks give me a chance to stretch my legs, get an eyeball on the neighborhood, and think.

Once I’ve settled into a rhythm and have sufficient momentum, I try to steer my thoughts toward something I want to write, whatever book I happen to be reading, a movie I want to make sense of, or something I want to accomplish. It almost never works. Instead, my mind wanders of its own accord. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the act of walking itself: the rhythmic succession of my feet as they take turns touching the ground before lifting off again, the feeling of my body moving through space, and the wonder of each small step adding up to the thousands that make up my journey through the streets. It’s a satisfying experience, but it always seems to go by too quickly. Before I know it, three miles have passed and I’m back on my street again, advancing up the hill toward home. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that whenever I reach the end of the walk, I don’t feel sad, I feel free.

I realize it might seem strange to speak of freedom while under a stay-at-home order, but then again, everything is strange right now. Perhaps that’s why I am enjoying these walks so much. The simple act of walking along the street with the dogs is a of respite of calm amidst the chaos. On my walks everything feels normal, even though I know it isn’t, and I forget. I forget about the virus, about the stay-at-home order, the sickness and death, and the partisan bickering about how we should deal with it. I forget how truly extraordinary it is to be living under these conditions and I forget that, when it is all over, things might never be the same.


* The Governor lifted the stay-at-home order on Friday, May 15. However, my county, which has the most cases in the state, maintained its stay-at-home order until May 31.