Not long before the pandemic hit, someone reported me to the police. I wasn’t selling drugs or stealing a car or making too much noise in the middle of the night. I wasn’t even breaking the law. My only crime was to stroll through an American neighborhood where walking is not the done thing.
“People here drive everywhere,” the policeman told me. “Walking sets off alarm bells.”
A joke, right? Wrong. In a world in thrall to cars, walking is often seen as deviant behavior.
I grew up in a Canadian city where people would drive rather than walk 10 minutes. My earliest memory of walking to high school was hearing some guy hanging out the passenger side of his friend’s ride, hollering at me, “Get a car, loser!”
In many cultures, landing your first set of wheels is a rite of passage, a passport to adulthood. Driving can certainly boost your dating odds. Remember that famous line from Grease: “Tell me more, tell me more, like does he have a car?”
Small wonder the World Health Organization described walking as a “forgotten art.”
To make matters worse, when we do walk, it’s often with a very modern blend of impatience, distraction, and goal-hunting. We use apps to count our steps. We curse anyone daring to dawdle in our path. We spend much of the time staring down at our smartphones. All over the world, distracted pedestrians get hurt walking into lamp-posts, fire hydrants, or other distracted pedestrians.
Brick Lane, a hipster haven in London, came up with a novel way to curb walk-and-text injuries: wrap local lampposts in foam padding.
The truth is, we need to walk more–for our health and for the sake of the planet. But we also need to walk better.
The French have a wonderful word: flânerie. It means strolling without any goal in mind beyond exploring, observing, and savoring. It’s the opposite of power walking.
When you channel your inner flâneur (or flâneuse), you notice flowers and trees, clouds in the sky and hills on the horizon, how the light dances on water or across the windows of a building. You hear birdsong and the laughter of strangers. You take pleasure in what others are wearing and doing. Walking like a flâneur is a balm for the mind and the spirit.
In the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, used his daily constitutional to silence the chatter in his head. “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it,” he once said.
Shakespeare was on the same page. In “The Tempest,” Prospero says, “A turn or two I’ll walk, to still my beating mind.”
Walking can even be part of a path to enlightenment. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen master, says that a mindful stroll can bring spiritual clarity and heal both the walker and the world.
Ambling also fires up the imagination. That’s why big thinkers, from Aristotle to Virginia Woolf, have hailed the creative power of a good walk. William Wordsworth composed much of his poetry while wandering lonely as a cloud through the English countryside.
“All truly great thoughts,” said Nietzsche, “are conceived while walking.”
Nikola Tesla agreed. The inventor of the induction motor had his eureka moment while perambulating in Budapest. “The idea came like a flash of lightning,” he later recalled. “In an instant, the truth was revealed.”
A silver lining of the pandemic is that walking is making a comeback. With normal life on pause, people everywhere have embraced it as a way to exercise, unwind, or just get out of the house. I now take a long stroll every day in my corner of London. My route winds along Victorian streets and through three parks.
And I walk it in full flâneur mode. No rush. No Fitbit. No music. No phone. Just meandering for the sheer joy of it.
The other day, as I sauntered past a pond in the park, a question popped into my head: Has the pandemic finally made flânerie permissible in that neighborhood where someone dialed 911 after seeing me on foot? I emailed a local to find out.
“You’d fit right in here now,” came the reply. “I’m looking out my window, and everybody’s out there strolling around like they have all the time in the world.”
Carl Honoré is a London-based writer, broadcaster, and TED speaker. His bestselling books on the benefits of slowing down and aging have been published in 35 languages.