This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
I used to think that my melancholy had to do with the external circumstances of my life; the sadness that comes from great disappointment, like the loss of a job or a death in the family. But I’ve gradually come to see that what happens and how I feel about it are not always related. Someone breaks into my car, stealing thousands of dollars of my stuff, and I feel nothing. A stranger leaves a critical comment under one my Facebook posts and I’m devastated.
Recently I overheard my wife Lisa saying how difficult last year was for her. Later I asked what she was talking about. “Well,” she said, “You were hospitalized with viral meningitis and completely incapacitated for a month.” Oh, yeah, I forgot. I wonder why my being terribly ill would make Lisa’s year so hard and she might wonder why I can’t just let go of that one critical Facebook comment. What’s hard for me might not be hard for you, but we are all looking for a good way through.
There are predictable ways we search for comfort. When I’m sleep deprived I crave fatty foods, sugary snacks and naps. When I’m stressed or fatigued I want a glass of wine, a good T.V. show or an orgasm. When I’m sick or exhausted, I want solitude and silence. Sometimes when I’m discouraged I’ll talk to a friend. We naturally look for sources of solace, and food, sex, sleep, company and beauty can all provide a measure of what we need. But anything that helps us get through has its limits. Too much talk about my problems leaves me feeling like I’m needy and powerless. Too much wine, salty snacks or binge watching makes me feel blurry, bloated and lethargic. And sometimes silence or time with a journal only creates more space for me to obsess about whatever bamboozled me.
When I’m sad, stressed, exhausted or overwhelmed, the practice that most reliably helps me is walking. Unlike so many of my other coping mechanism, the only downside to walking that I can think of is an occasional blister or sore feet.
I first discovered the magical healing power of a walk when I was an angsty and hormonal teenager. Desperate for time and space to process my complicated feelings I stopped taking the bus and started walking the two and a half miles each way to school and back. I didn’t have a Sony Walkman so I was free to meditate, pray and notice the grit and beauty of the city streets that surrounded me.
In college my mind was flooded with questions and uncertainties. Who am I? Why are we here? What should I do and who can I spend my life with? I explored these questions on early morning wanders in the woods. Or, I’d take a solitary stroll down the moody streets of a low rent neighborhood at sunset.
In my twenties, married, working, going to graduate school, and raising three kids, there was less space for quiet reflection. But sometimes in desperation, I would take a moonlit hike at midnight to sort out my thoughts. On summer evenings I would walk a child to sleep or clock miles on a trail while reading my seminary textbooks.
For me walking creates a cadence that brings clarity and peace. When my body is occupied by movement my mind is free to wander and wonder. The rhythm of my steps resets my internal symmetry. I am open to what I see in front of me and and what is buried deep inside.
I love the life I have as a teacher, writer and activist. But the flow of my work means that I am often jet lagged and over stimulated by public speaking and meeting new people. Too many days of creating and relating can leave me feeling spun out and emotionally discombobulated. I know what I need to do. Pack a water bottle, a jacket, sunscreen and some nuts and walk from morning until dusk. I walk myself back to equilibrium, slowly stepping down paths or cobblestone streets, stopping in a museum, garden or cafe. And then keep moving until my mind is clear and my soul is at rest and I can hardly take another step. Eight miles through cool gray San Francisco. Twelve miles criss-crossing the bridges of London. Fifteen miles wandering the arrondissements of Paris. Eighteen miles strolling the beaches and docklands of Sydney and Melbourne. Four miles along the freeway in Visalia.
In the oldest stories of our ancestors, it is said they walked with God in the cool of the day. And I can relate. At the end of the day we find our rest, not by sitting, but by joining a peripatetic journey with the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
God’s country, they call it,
a land of sky wide sunrises
where water is king,
the divide between
bone dry desert and fertile green.
I walk the lonely back roads
through fields of tall corn and stone fruit
as men in oversized pick ups barrel past
kicking up the San Joaquin valley dust.
They call this the heartland, the bread basket
and beyond the miles of well ordered orange groves
the snow capped Sierra mountains hang
like pink and grey clouds on the horizon.
What I see right in front of me,
is what falls off or gets tossed out of moving vehicles
a stray bolt, old tire tread,
piles of worn out shoes and baby clothes,
beer bottles, condoms, tobacco tins,
rodeo flyers and McDonald’s cups.
The heartland doesn’t look as beautiful
when seen close up.
I see the landscape as I see myself.
Searching for treasure amongst the debris
Hunting for a view of the sky among the trees
Hoping the truck behind me doesn’t speed up or stop,
Veering towards the ditches just to be safe.
At sunset the temperature drops
A stray cats purrs
A cool breeze blows
Hush falls over the valley
Glowing with the possibilities of a new day tomorrow.
Mark Scandrette is a teacher, activist and coach for leaders and teams who want to create a better world from the inside out. He is the founder of ReIMAGINE, one of the key creative shapers of the NINE BEATS Collective, and author of several books including FREE, Belonging and Becoming and Practicing the Way of Jesus.