Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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Walking

Published on Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Walking

A Metaphor for Life

I try to get my 10,000 steps in every day. And yes, I wear a pedometer to keep track. It’s actually interesting because I find myself competing with myself. And when I fall short, I feel guilty. And when I exceed 10,000 steps, I say “good girl!” Sometimes out loud. Seriously.

Anyway, I’ve always liked to walk, to hike. Mornings I take a walk around my neighborhood – usually the same track because I know exactly how long the walk will take. Twenty-five minutes. The lead photo and the next two below show one familiar street on my daily route, and the third is a shot of my own street as I was returning home yesterday. I have a treadmill downstairs in my rec room and I use it when the weather is too rainy, snowy, or icy. But believe me, going nowhere on a treadmill is a very poor substitute for getting out in the fresh air, greeting neighbors, listening to one of my favorite Pandora stations on my iPhone (recently, Roy Orbison’s channel ... sometimes Hall & Oates ... music of my youth so I can sing along assuming my neighbors think I’m talking to someone with my earpiece in, but little do they know that I’m singing as I walk)!

I’ve always loved hiking. My husband and I always picked vacation spots where we could hike – mountains are best. Those of you who follow my blog know that my favorite hideaway is Wintergreen Resort, tucked on the top of Afton Mountain near Charlottesville, Virginia. Anyway, walking is definitely my thing.

As a psychologist, this is my first area of training and thus deeply imprinted in my brain. I still get a number of academic journals from that field. I am loath to discard them until I at least scan the table of contents to see what’s au currant in research. In a recent issue of the American Psychologist one title caught my eye: “Stepping Forward Together: Could Walking Facilitate Interpersonal Conflict Resolution?” by three researchers at Columbia University. (C. Webb, M. Rossignac-Milton, and E. Higgins, 2017, Vol. 72, pp. 374-385). In the abstract, the authors observe that “walking has myriad benefits for the mind, most of which have traditionally been explored and explained at the individual level of analysis. Much less empirical work has examined how walking with a partner might benefit social processes. One such process is conflict resolution – a field of psychology in which movement is inherent not only in recent theory and research, but also in colloquial language (e.g., 'moving on').”

The authors situate their work nicely on a philosophical base, citing Friedrich Nietzsche (“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs”); and in support of their hypothesis that walking together can promote conflict resolution, the authors quote Soren Kierkegaard (“I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it”) and the Bible (“Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”). “Captured in the ancient Latin proverb solvitur ambulando, or ‘it is solved by walking,’ and in more contemporary phrases such as ‘take a walk to clear one’s head,’ these examples provide ample anecdotal evidence that walking aids thought” (p. 375).

Webb, Rossignac-Milton and Higgins review much of the literature supporting the idea that walking and other forms of mild exercise do enhance creativity at the individual level. And along with many others, I can also attest that my walks in the neighborhood or in a nearby park increase my own creative thinking, whether I’m writing a chapter, thinking about a sermon, mulling over a blog for my website, or just “clearing my head” in thinking about any current dilemma or just thinking about my life.

I think these authors are onto something important about conflict resolution. There is something about walking in tandem with another person, coordinating one’s gate with another’s. At the most basic level, we are embodied creatures, with meaning expressed through our bodies by gesture and ritual, and by our use of metaphoric language grounded in our embodied experience. (Just a note: In my Imagination and the Journey of Faith [2008] I talk extensively about metaphoric expression of embodied, existential meaning.) In the area of conflict resolution, the authors give examples of such metaphoric meaning expression. For example, interpersonal conflict is said to create an “impasse” and its resolution allows us to “move on.” Conflict allows us to be stuck and go nowhere, and its resolution allows us to put the conflict “behind us” or to “get somewhere.”

The authors conclude, “Going for a walk together offers a very practical and cost-effective strategy for negotiators, clinicians, and close social partners.” Again, I think they are onto something here. But whether ultimately their idea will be supported by scientific data, there is no doubt about the fact that walking for each of us is good for the brain, good for the heart, and good for life itself. There is something about moving forward as we step, moving toward some distant goal – the end of the trail, the welcoming of home, the promise of the future unfolding as we keep together in time. (See William McNeill’s classic work, Keeping Together in Time, 1995.)

One of my very favorite poets, Isobel de Gruchy, wrote a poem titled “Walk On, Walk On” – a beautiful, metaphoric use of the word “walk,” in this case, in times of trouble or sorrow.  She says:

Walk on, walk on, into the unknown way,
dark though it seems with obstacles and fears,
God will direct your steps both night and day. ...

But now some friends walk at your side and they
Will help you bear the burden of your cares;
Walk on, walk on, into the unknown way. ...

And there are also times of joyful play,
And celebrations as years follow years.
So walk on, walk on, into the unknown way.
Let God direct your steps both night and day.

(Isobel de Gruchy, Walking On: Poems Prayers Pictures, 2013, p. 1)

So ... this might be a good time to renew that New Year’s resolution – you know, the one about getting more exercise every day. But in this case, I hope I’ve convinced you, if you weren’t already convinced, that you could not do any better than walking those 10,000 or so steps daily – whether you sing along to your favorite Pandora station or not. Good for your brain and good for everything that ails you, or saddens you, or just needs mulling over in your life. It’s never too late!

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate and Theologian-in-Residence at historic St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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