Are we ever truly alone? James V. Schall asks this question in his essay, The Metaphysics of Walking. Theologians and social scientists have wrestled with the question of an over busy society for longer than man can imagine. Although our contemporary Western culture is filled with activity, man has always found things to occupy his time. The struggle for survival alone can make one’s occupation overwhelming in trying to provide the basics of life. But as modern society in the West has continued to grow, so has the demands on our time. The twentieth century saw a radical shift in the modern age away from times of contemplation to a fast-paced information saturated culture. In a time of history when information and answers are at the click of a keyboard, it would appear that more leisure time would be easily accessible. But with all modern conveniences it seems like the importance of leisure in the priority of the day has become less and less a priority.
A new kind of slavery has entered Western work environments in that the cubicle has replaced the cage. Laborers remain at the desk for endless hours with very little movement or exercise. Even though many large corporations provide exercise rooms, the responsibilities and expectations of the workday rarely allow for the use of these facilities. The office worker will find it easier not to move the body in order to strengthen the mind. Reports on Google’s innovative work culture is the envy of most American office workers. If what is seen and reported is true at Google, then it is not surprising that the creativity that comes from there is so high.
Social interaction is important for the nourishing of ideas. The weekly Google hangouts in the Great Books Honors College at Faulkner University model the importance of this interaction. The encouragement and motivation in these discussions provide ideas that could have never been contemplated alone. But in order for these discussions to be productive participants must find time to contemplate prior to the meeting so that ideas can take shape. However, with many family and work responsibilities one finds it difficult to carve out the important alone time necessary for great thinking.
Sitting at a desk does allow for the focus of reading the works and taking notes. But most will often find that if the mind becomes stale and the eyes and body tired, the most refreshing thing to do is to get up, go outside, and go for a walk. Something as simple as changing scenery provides a new fuel for the mind. The combination of physical movement with contemplation is always the best formula for philosophy. If then this is an important priority, a schedule must shift for the philosopher and for anyone serious about great thoughts.
If then the problem of obtaining leisure is that busy-ness gets in the way, the easy response would be to simply find less to do. In order for this to occur a simple word must become part of one’s vocabulary. This word is no. This is not to say to reject all responsibility, but rather to prioritize requirements on time. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is reported as prioritizing his time amongst the huge demand of his ministry. It is recorded that many people, gathered often simply to catch a glimpse of the Master. Matthew 4:18 records a time where Jesus was walking. On this stroll by the Sea of Galilee he calls his first disciples. Matthew 4:23 indicates that while teaching in synagogues and proclaiming the gospel, Jesus’ fame spread throughout the region. The gospel of Luke records, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
It is important to acknowledge when walking in times of solitude one is never truly in isolation. When the priority of discovery takes precedence over the busy-ness of drudgery, one’s mind is never fully alone. The irony is that when one is alone on a walk many more faults and realities occupy the intellect. It seems that in order to be most productive one must find times that seem the least productive. Perception is not always reality so when one is seen walking alone he or she is never truly alone. Writing on Cicero, Schall said that, “he was never less idle than when he was by himself.”
The revelation of a walk comes in that one realizes the importance of just being. With no other demands on the time and intellect a much grander, more accurate, perception of reality occurs. Schall writes,
“Metaphysics is the science of being qua being, of the first things and their causes. We are astonished that something, including ourselves, stands outside of nothingness. Even to meditate on nothing, we must begin with something not ourselves.”
Perhaps this is the value of a walk. Physically moving from one space to another physically shows man’s place in the world. Reality is simply not what we make it to be. Reality is much bigger than ourselves and in order to understand that, we must experience the bigger reality by taking our self outside of ourselves and interacting with that outside.
Mars Hill audio tackles this same concept in the discussion on the decline of reading among Western culture. Most notably among young adults. Reading for a small child seems to be an exciting time. Their minds are shaped by imagination and fantasy and are eager for stories. But as that small child grows and develops into adolescence, future adulthood looms over them. Struggles with identity replace the creative imagination of childhood as changes come physically and mentally for the adolescent.
It is easy for someone who is no longer an adolescent to proclaim solutions to this problem of declining reading among our teenagers. But is it not the responsibility of those adults to shape and guide these young adults as they become mature? Although there are great demands on the intellect and mind of teenagers, it is the parents who determine what is allowed in the home. Multitasking for the millennial generation is normal but not necessarily beneficial. It is the ease of multitasking that distracts one from the importance of solitude. Physical walking outside of urban areas, or even in a city park, is important even for the adolescent. The structures of the academic day for a young person must include times of walking in silence. No matter how difficult it is for the teenager, these young people do follow a schedule structured by others.
There is a problem. It’s called busy-ness. Yet with all the technological conveniences of our day, it seems that we are never settled. What is the answer? Personal responsibility and acknowledgment that priorities are missing amongst the multitasking must occur. Whether it be the individual taking responsibility him or herself, or academic administration reshaping the schedule of the academic calendar, priorities must shift away from busy-ness to leisure. Open spaces are abundant where people may go and simply experience a world outside of themselves. However, it is far too common that the spaces are not discovered unless a crisis occurs forcing one to seek out these places of solitude. The burden of multitasking and busy-ness in our culture will weigh down so heavily upon the shoulders and minds of our citizens, I am afraid a crisis must occur in order for one to see the damage happening. Perhaps a breakdown in a place of solitude, is the only way for some, not all, to realize the truth.
- Schall, James V. “The Metaphysics of Walking.” In The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking, 91-107. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008.
- Gioia, Dana, interviewed by Ken Myers. Mars Hill Audio Journal, MHT-90.2.1. 2008.