Briefly Noted: On Long Walks and Deep Thoughts

In a recent edition of The Chronicle Review, Robert E. Manning holds forth on the virtues of taking long walks in order to stimulate deep thoughts.[1] In the article, “Long Walks, Deep Thoughts,” he begins by noting, “One of my favorite parts of the day is the half-hour walk between my home and campus, when I reflect on my teaching and research. Lately, I’ve been walking farther, hiking some of the world’s great long-distance trails….Every day on the trail is an adventure that engages me both physically and intellectually.” Although most of us consider walking to be rather “pedestrian,” it in fact is a psychosomatic marvel.

Manning notes the long and storied association between walking and thinking. Aristotle walked as he taught at the Lyceum in ancient Athens. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that industrialization and urbanization are harmful for humanity, and implied that humanity (including humanity’s capacity for deep thinking) is better off walking in a natural setting than sitting in an urban factory. “There is something about walking that stimulates and enlivens my thoughts,” writes Rousseau. “I can only meditate when I’m walking….When I stop I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.” Likewise, Romantic thinkers such as Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Muir were walker-thinkers.

Less well-known are the walking habits of Charles Dickens. As Manning describes it, “Charles Dickens may have been the ultimate urban walker, logging as many as 20 miles a day in his native London. Those rambles not only gave him welcome respite from his writing desk but also enlivened his work with the grim details of city life that made his novels famous.” Manning goes on to detail the connection between walking and thinking in Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, in Muslim hajjs, and in Christian pilgrimages.

As I read Manning’s, article, I made some personal connections between walking and thinking, and made some historical connections between Christian thinkers who walked while they thought.

The personal resonance is what drew me into the article. My childhood included may long walks on the sidewalks of the small town in which I grew up and on the golf course where I worked and played. In college, I remember taking long walks in the woods outside of Campbell University in order to clear my mind or to assess some of the things I was learning in courses I took on Western Civilization, Christian Ethics, or Communication Law. But most poignantly, I remember walking miles per day when I lived in Kazan, Russia. For four months of the year, I walked in relatively mild weather, surrounded by grass and flowers and the such. For eight months of the year, however, I walked on ice and in the midst of a near-steady snowfall. Clothed in a fur-lined leather coat, fur-lined boots, and a triple-knit Nike toboggan, I walked for at least an hour per day. During these walks, there was little to do other than think, and thinking is what I did. I had brought with me to Russia one suitcase with clothing and four suitcases of books. My walking was, as it were, the medium of reflection for the ideas contained in those books. These walks are some of the best memories of my life.

The historical connections are many, and I will suffice to mention only two. First, Jonathan Edwards. At Campbell University, my English professor was Alan Davy. As a part of English 101, Dr. Davy required us to read two sermons by Jonathan Edwards, one of which was entitled, “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” I was taken by Edwards and soon began to read more of his sermons and even some of his books. As I did so, I discovered that Edwards did much of his thinking while walking or riding horseback in the woods or environs near his parish. Edwards is widely recognized as America’s most brilliant theologian, and some commentators consider him also America’s most brilliant philosopher. This brilliant man, I realized, was able to think deeply and reflect critically, precisely because he took the time to walk slowly through the woods. He was contemplative in part because he was circumambulative. J

Second, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. In 1929, the agnostic Lewis was on his knees praying to God and considering the truths of Christianity. Lewis recounts this part of his life in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Essayist Andrea Monda summarizes this period of his life:

Although in 1929 Jack was already on his knees and had prayed to God desperately and reluctantly, it was Tolkien’s friendship that brought him to the encounter with Christ. On 19 September 1931, Jack and “Tollers” (as Tolkien was called by his closest friends), together with their common friend Hugo Dyson, were taking their usual after-dinner stroll in the grounds of Magdalen College and began discussing ancient myths and the Truth “hidden” in these legends.

On this September evening, Lewis, Tolkien, and Dyson spent the entire evening pacing Addison’s Walk (Magdalen College, Oxford), debating the truth of Christianity. To summarize, Tolkien argued that mythology and narrative satisfied humanity’s rational and imaginative impulses by using “myth” to convey truth. Lewis already admired mythology, but had rejected religion. So Tolkien (and Dyson) made the point that Lewis was inconsistent. Lewis held the Bible to a higher standard than any other sort of expression. In the end, Lewis admitted he was wrong, and this little stroll down Addison’s Walk marked a watershed moment in his spiritual and professional life.

I’ll limit myself to one concluding reflection. Our 21st century urban context pushes us to live lives that are dizzyingly busy, crammed full of many things and devoid of time to contemplate. Perhaps the best thing we can do is set aside some time to be “unbusy,” so that can partake in such a deeply humane activity as walking and thinking. As Eugene Peterson points out, our busy-ness sometimes stems from arrogance—we are busy because we are building our own kingdoms. Other times, it stems from laziness—we let society write our agenda rather than writing our own. Either way, we rob ourselves of the time needed to immerse ourselves in deep thought about. Healthy spiritual and intellectual formation requires a certain amount of unhurried leisure, the sort that is often provided by a long stroll.

[1] Robert E. Manning, “Long Walks, Deep Thoughts,” in The Chronicle Review (Dec 14, 2012), B13.