Changing the world by putting one foot in front of the other
As anyone who has glanced at my column over the past few years can tell you, I’m a worried man. What’s happening to America’s social fabric concerns me. What’s being done to the environment troubles me. What’s under discussion in Washington these days terrifies me. And, on a more personal level, the increasing soullessness of modern life keeps my wife, Julie, and me up at night wondering what kind of world our son, Soren, will grow up in.
At the same time, I’m a doggedly unflappable optimist. News of activists triumphing in Kansas, a cultural movement stirring in India, or a new bakery opening up around the corner fills me with hope—and confirms my view that people working together can overcome any injustice or inanity (even squishy supermarket bread!).
With all sorts of problems to worry about, and strong instincts that we can do something to overcome them, I often feel frantic. Add in the fact that we have only 12 short months to unseat George W. Bush and his out-of-control cohorts, and I feel completely overwhelmed. That's why right now at the top of my to-do list, underscored in bright red ink, is to take a walk.
Why, you might ask, with so many crucial matters clamoring for our attention, am I taking precious time to go strolling? Let me answer in the words of William Vitek, a writer I had never heard of before, who beautifully expressed my thoughts in the pages of Preservation magazine: “Walking is the single best way to experience the here and now. It mimics the beating heart, a rhythm in which the body takes obvious delight. Walking is also the best pace by which our senses can take in the world. We hear conversations, see faces, taste the humid air, sense a change in the weather.”
New ideas and actions to promote peace, social justice, and a more soulful way of life won’t come to us by staying longer at the office. To change the world, we need to become more a part of it—to get outside and see and hear and feel what’s happening around us. The politicians, generals, corporate chiefs, and others who want to keep us on the present political and cultural course pass their days in offices, airports, and automobiles. Their experience of the world comes mainly from meetings, e-mail, and phone conferences, not through the joy of their senses and the rhythm of their hearts.
Of course, the same is true for most of us who want to chart a new course for society. But if we are to be sincere in our claims of standing up for poor people, children, and the earth, then we need to know our way around city streets and playgrounds and woods. Walking helps keep us in touch with what really matters in life.
But there’s another reason why I intend to take more walks than ever in the coming months. I will let the pioneering 18th century social critic Jean-Jacques Rousseau speak for me this time: “When I stop [walking], I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.”
For me, sitting at a desk is basically a waste of time. I have no idea of what's on my mind until I am up and moving. Some of our most important meetings here at Utne take place on the footpath that circles a pond across the street from our office near downtown Minneapolis. Whenever I'm stuck on composing a headline or writing an article, I hurry out for a walk in the park. The problem is usually solved by the time I'm down the stairs and out on the sidewalk, but I continue my stroll anyway. A few minutes wandering among the oak trees, stopping to hear the ducks quack, making small talk with homeless people and brown-bagging office workers contributes to my work—as a journalist, a neighbor, a parent, and a citizen motivated to make a better world.
To improve things at this point in history, both in our local communities and across the planet, will require some smart, savvy, strategic thinking. We can’t do it sitting down.
I am happy to announce that Karen Olson is stepping up to become managing editor of Utne. Over the last year, as senior editor, she has guided the progress of all of our cover stories in addition to writing and editing. In this new position, she will bring her organizational gifts, probing mind, and creative spirit to all aspects of creating the magazine.