Monday, April 2, 2018

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur ambulando is a Latin phrase meaning “it is solved by walking.” According to legend it was first uttered by the Greek philosopher Diogenes. After listening patiently to another philosopher’s ridiculous “proof” that motion was impossible, Diogenes simply got up and walked away, muttering “solvitur ambulando.” If ancient Greeks had mics, that’d be a mic drop.
            Since then, solvitur ambulando has taken on a much wider meaning. Countless poets, essayists, and philosophers have cited the aphorism as proof of the benefit of a robust walk. But its usefulness extends even beyond that.
            Human beings evolved on their feet. For hundreds of thousands of years we walked everywhere, all day, every day. Our bodies were designed to move. And yet in this mechanized age we sit for hours at a time, often all day, walking only to get another cup of coffee, or pee the last one out. And it’s killing us – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other problems shorten our lives. After centuries of increasing life-expectancy, we are the first generation in a long, long time to die sooner than our ancestors. As health experts put it, sitting is the new smoking.
            Beyond physical wellness, walking significantly improves our mental health. Depression, anxiety, and other maladies of the mind shrink beneath the grandeur of a wide open sky. There’s something about leaving the confines of your four walls and stepping out onto the path through your village. Whether on a nature trail, a suburban lane, or a downtown street, walking reintroduces you to the community of things – the world that gave birth to you and everything you know, everything you see, everything you feel, and everything you are. Coming out of isolation and sauntering far afield brings you home to yourself.
            Walking through my neighborhood the other day I bumped into a neighbor I hadn’t seen in three years. We had a lot of catching up to do. Thirty minutes later I felt as though I’d read an entire novel rich with pathos, grief, recognition, and laughter – and I’ll wager she felt the same. We need each other. We build each other. We are each other. I felt deeply my own sorrows and joys in hers. The rain-wet sidewalk, the bare winter trees, and the leaden sky felt warm and safe. I was at home in my own skin, and in this beautiful, painful, hopeful world. By coming to know strangers, we are no longer strangers to ourselves.
            And so we come to the deeper meaning of solvitur ambulando – that there is wordless healing in ambulation, that is, movement. We overestimate our intellectual capacity to solve all of our problems at the level of thought. Rational discourse, refined conceptual thinking, and intellectual discernment yield many fruits. But they have limits. When it comes to the really big problems – the meaning of life, death, love, and everything in between – we can’t think our way out of a wet paper bag. When words and thoughts fail us, take to your feet. Move. Feel the problem shift, soften, open, and dissolve all on its own. I don’t know why it works. It just does.
            In an even broader sense, solvitur ambulando conveys the power of embodiment – that wisdom isn’t something you know, it’s something you are. Truth-claims made by others, no matter how compelling, shimmer and fade like ghosts until you test them in the laboratory of your own life. Only through action does the truth take form.           
You don’t understand cooking until you cook. You don’t taste the challenges and joys of marriage until you walk down the aisle. You can’t criticize the creative product of another until you’ve dared to risk offering your own creation on the same stage. Only when we walk the walk do we earn the right to talk.
            Even our moral positions benefit from the deep-tissue empathy of embodiment. Until you have faced an unwanted pregnancy yourself, your position on the legality or morality of abortion falls short, no matter how learned or principled. Good people disagree on the rectitude of terminating pregnancies. But until you live it, your words carry the taint of sanctimony and grandstanding.
            Out beyond the platitudes of the sermon or the pronouncements of the lecture hall there is a messy world of complicated interconnections, wordless realizations, and untraceable sensibilities. We ought to learn how to do better at leaving each other alone to the authority of our own embodied knowing. Life is hard. We make it harder by interfering with the natural pathway wisdom often travels – the inner road of our soul-wanderings.
            As each of us walks through this world, we see what we see, feel what we feel, and come to know what we come to know – by walking. In the alchemy of time, substantive wisdom arises like steam from the cauldron of our suffering. Life is going to hurt. There is no short cut. You have to walk right through the fire.
            Get a dog. The rescue shelters are full of them. Bring one home. Walk her every day, rain or shine, whether you feel like it or not. Let a dog reconnect you to your neighborhood, your neighbors, the natural world, and your own latent joy. There are clouds to trace, fields to cross, and trees to interlace with your meandering. There are shores along the lake or sea that never show themselves the same way twice.   
            In high school I sometimes struggled to pay attention to my teachers. My mind often wandered. (How ironic that I would one day become a teacher myself, my work as a lecturer deeply informed by the lived experience of how boring school can be). One night, while trying to do my homework, I chanced upon a poem by Walt Whitman called “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” I felt as though I’d been hit by lightning.
            When I heard the learn’d astronomer
            When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
            When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
            When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
            How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
            Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
            In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
            Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
            I closed my book, turned off the light, and went for a walk through the silent darkness of my sleepy suburban neighborhood. I never did finish that homework assignment. Whatever problem I was working on remains unsolved, by me anyway. But I have a feeling it solved itself.
            Ultimately, you cannot receive truth second hand. What another proclaims, I must experience myself. So it is that the best advice often falls on deaf ears. Until you have the ears to hear, the most beautiful words are nothing more than clanging cymbals.


acechadwick said...

My friend and I have taken it upon ourselves to walk a thousand extra miles this year (on top of the usual daily pottering) so four/five evenings a week we set off and wander far and wide over our peninsula.
Initially I viewed it as exercise, an achievement, marking the miles on a pedometer,but gradually it evolved into so much more.
I have never actually 'seen' where I live, not in the depth I am seeing it now.
How long has that house been there? 50 years? What? I can't recall seeing it before.
Never heard of this street. Did you know this street existed three miles from where we live?
We discuss what we would do to beautify bits of waste land. Discovered a beautiful brick tower which is a ventilation shaft. Tram lines buried in cobbles. Old cottages down back alleys. Bits of untravelled waterfront. Gardens where someone has expressed their creativity with sculptures, or planting or lights.Sad houses that make you wonder about who could possibly live behind those dirty curtains.
And cats...cats that take up stations like guardians of heaven knows what, but they're always there giving you the side eye as you walk past.
But the most profound thing is (and I cannot express it as eloquently as yourself) is the calming of the mind. Sometimes we'll be ranting about some ghastly news item and then gradually it subsides and gives way to pointing out simple things 'Look there's a robin' 'Ooh I like that tree, any idea what it is? Tonight we smelt the lilac trees coming into blossom. A heady sent.
Anyway our club of two is called Solvitur Ambulando...I'm having T-Shirts made!

© Peter Bolland said...

Thanks Ace Chadwick for your story of how walking shifted everything for you. I know that it'll do it for anyone who tries, especially in the open-hearted and deeply curious way you describe. Cheers, and post a photo of that T-shirt when you get it.

GMay said...

An excellent post overall, but its premise grasps a bit beyond what it's capable of.

"You can’t criticize the creative product of another until you’ve dared to risk offering your own creation on the same stage. Only when we walk the walk do we earn the right to talk."

I don't need to have filmed a movie to be able to articulate why Freddie Got Fingered is garbage. I don't need to have written a book to explain how The Eye of Argon is terrible. Nor do I need such specialized "lived" experience to say so in those, or any other cases. The assertion that I or anyone else does is troubling in a few regards. Does the college professor who has lived and experienced a life solely in academia need to confine his or her teachings to that limited professional experience? Does a male gynecologist "fall short" simply because he is male? After all, he would be quite "well learned".

"Even our moral positions benefit from the deep-tissue empathy of embodiment. Until you have faced an unwanted pregnancy yourself, your position on the legality or morality of abortion falls short, no matter how learned or principled. Good people disagree on the rectitude of terminating pregnancies. But until you live it, your words carry the taint of sanctimony and grandstanding."

A stray political hobbyhorse that mars the piece. Suggesting that personal experience is required to hold a strong - or credible moral position - is problematic. I have a moral objection to theft without having been a thief, and long before ever having anything stolen from me. I have a moral objection to anti-vaxxers and women who drink or smoke during pregnancy, despite having no experience with either, yet this is completely uncontroversial. Should a person's moral position be considered strongest only if they have experienced the situation in question?

This sort of neo-segregationism seems fashionable today, but I can only hope it's a fad. This line of reasoning, such as it is, seems to collapse under the mildest scrutiny.

Ken said...

Well said, sir. Walking is good for my outlook and blood pressure (same goes for playing music).

Michael said...

In London apprentice taxi drivers learn complicated road system by doing The Knowledge and continue to do so - Uber drivers do not have this knowledge and Satnav systems are not a substitute.

My version of this was running the streets of London every Sunday morning with my running partner. He had a database that recorded consents, starts and completions initially office developments and later, having been bought out by a developer, he did the same for housing projects in central/inner London. He came with a list, I organised the route and we visited all the sites that he had chosen from his database. On returning home he would update his database and send it to his clients to arrive on their desktop on Monday morning. The quality off his research was excellent and was highly valued.

But the real benefit of the run was our conversations about evolving planning policies for nationally, London and the local boroughs, especially on housing and tall buildings - a combination of exchanging information, debating the issues, putting the world to rights, and renewing our "knowledge" of the evolving development of London. As a policy analyst/policy maker and him as development analyst and information provider, doing "The Knowledge" every Sunday running round Inner/Central London and renewing our mental database put us both ahead of the field in understanding our city and in advising our respective clients in our respective fields. This was more than training for marathons but also for refreshing our minds.

Sharlyn said...

I understood the second quote you referred to from Peter’s post quite differently. I felt he was asking us to examine our stances on moral positions from the perspective of having been through it. When you face something, like an unwanted pregnancy and are directly impacted by it, you have a deeper understanding of all it’s ramifications. That doesn’t mean you cannot take a moral stand only if you’ve experienced it, rather it benefits all of us to be aware of this and more than likely we will be more empathetic to others’ positions as well if we simply widen our lens to include this idea of embodiment.