When a Walk is More Than a Walk

I like to walk – through nature when I can, winding along paths shaded by trees, the cares of the world left behind for a while as I absorb the emanations of the enchanting flora. But if that’s not feasible for some reason – if, for example, there’s a snowstorm or freezing rain or it’s bitterly cold – I’ll walk inside.

There’s a dome near where I live that allows for limited public walking, with each lap measuring approximately a quarter mile. It’s not quite as relaxing among the crowd of seniors getting their daily constitutional. And the inside part of the dome is usually taken up by soccer or frisbee or football players who occasionally whistle an object past our heads.

I’ve been hit a couple times by an errant shot or pass, so I’m much more alert in the dome than I am outside. My mind doesn’t get to drift as much. I also abide by the counter-clockwise flow of the indoor walkers. Like ice skaters (perhaps you’ve noticed this), they always move in that direction. I wonder why. Why not occasionally walk clockwise?

Perhaps it’s some atavistic instinct we’re not aware of, some inner alignment that acts upon us unconsciously, like deer and cows aligning themselves to the magnetic poles when they’re grazing or resting. It’s not a strong urge. And it happens more frequently when they’re in a group than when they’re alone.

That seems to be true for people moving counter-clockwise as well. You do it because the group does it. You walk a few times at the dome and you begin to sense that even if you were the only one there, you would be expected to walk in that direction. A few contrarians would no doubt walk clockwise but most of us would ambulate in the socially approved manner.

I’ve thought about this while walking in the dome. What if a few of us turned around and began heading in the other direction? How many of us would have to reverse course for the rest of the walkers to decide to join us?

I’ve done this while skating with a few family members. Occasionally we just switch course and begin moving clockwise. If there aren’t many skaters, it doesn’t take much to turn the tide, but if there are more than a handful of other skaters on the ice, it doesn’t work. It takes an announcement over the PA system by someone in authority to get people to switch.

When I walk outside, I don’t have to worry about which direction I’m going unless I’m with a friend. Society – even a society as small as two – dictates our actions to a great extent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does make me wonder how much our daily lives are influenced by tiny factors we haven’t taken into account.

We see others doing X and at least consider doing X ourselves. If most of the people we know are doing X, then in our minds there probably isn’t anything wrong with X. And if X is not actually good but in fact a little harmful, and if we do X too and thereby add to the problem, will we even recognize that?

We know, if we step back and look at things objectively, without considering our wants and desires, that certain actions (like using disposable plastic bags at the store) are at least minimally bad. But we often don’t think about them because we’re trapped in the flow with everybody else. We’re just doing what they’re doing and they’re doing what we’re doing.

Perhaps we need to do a better job of thinking before we act, of not just blindly following the pack. Setting an example. For now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a walk.

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Steve McEllistrem

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