“Only ideas won by walking have any value,” 20th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote.
Given the whole host of dilemmas that can mount within our lives, it seems fair to allow a few things to slip into the furnishings which we don’t consider too thoroughly. Most of us feel like the act of walking, for example, is something that doesn’t warrant much attention. But does its frequency really justify its lack of appreciation?
Walking may seem simple. One “walks to the kitchen” and we hardly consider it worth noting. The passage from point A to B in this case is routine and uninspiring, as we’ve just done something that we’ve accomplished thousands of times. Would an idea incurred in this trot really have more value than that which came to us lodged in the rocking chair?
What about when one “goes for a walk”? In this case, we are not setting out to achieve anything. Instead, the walk itself appears to be the intention, so from the time we start until we finish we are already achieving the goal.
Going for a walk is different than walking somewhere, and loosens the pressure to orient ourselves toward something in a specific manner. By this I mean that when we go for a walk we are not rigidly expecting one outcome, such as getting milk from the kitchen, and instead are open to whatever may arise.
So how do ideas become more valuable during a walk? Let’s imagine the alternative to ideas gained during a walk — those which arrive in other times. Say, even more specifically, that instead of “going for a walk,” we intended to “come up with some ideas.”
Say one of the countless hindrances of our lives called for us to really slow down and figure it out. We needed to process something through and get just a bit clearer of a perspective — a new idea which would help us solve the puzzle.
In order to come up with some ideas we sat down and closed our eyes, imagining that to be the way one thinks when trying hard to. We sat, and with extreme mental effort turned the puzzle around and around within our consciences. Nothing comes which brings resolution, but we persevere. With more effort the answer will come, we imagine.
Have you ever been stuck trying to remember the surname of your old high school friend? Or lost the word which seems most appropriate in a heated discussion, with it somehow being just out of reach on the “tip of my tongue”? Does it help to continue forcing and dwelling on the issue? Does the answer come that way?
In my experience the answer does not come that way. When does the answer usually come? After we have given up, or let the matter go all together, and moved on to our next occupation. The discussion has finished, or the search for the old friend has been labeled a failure, and then all of a sudden the answer appears out of nothing — so clear and obvious now.
Now let’s apply this to other sorts of ideas, like those which could really help us with something which is direly important in our lives. If the idea will help you figure out how to resolve a relationship issue, or a problem at work, or a question of family, then it may be much harder to put it to the side. It is for me. But continuing to force the issue, much like trying to remember that mysterious name, doesn’t work either. So what about going for a walk?
I go for a lot of walks by myself. It is an activity which I started making habitual during the COVID pandemic, and which I had no interest in before. When I was younger I never even imagined it would be worth doing, precisely because it seemed going for a walk wasn’t really doing anything. Especially in the town I grew up in which had seemed sapped of all novelty, or in college where it seemed like there were many more exciting pastimes.
One, going for a walk is not going on a hike, it’s not exhilarating and one is not greeted with extraordinary views. Two, going for a walk is not going for a run, where one feels the reward of pushing themselves and becoming strong. And three, going for a walk without anyone else is pointless, I already spend enough time with myself. These are reasons I may have given for not wanting to go for a walk when I was younger.
Now I would disagree with all those reasons.
Walking on the most ordinary path is never walking on the same path, and there could be countless marvels which are noticed in ways never before seen or details which only appear now to the refined eye. Two, the act of walking, because of its lack of exciting stimulation and instant gratification, can be an act of discipline and strengthening.
To develop the patience for walking is a different sort of strength, but strength nonetheless. And three, it is precisely during the walk that I get to spend the time with myself that really matters. This last point brings us back to the rest of the argument.
To go for a walk alone is to face silence. In this silence the quieter voices within you are able to be heard. Sitting and forcing an idea to come can feel like drowning in noise. I get so invested in one way of thinking that I close off all other possibilities and continue to push that perspective, even when no resolution comes.
To go for a walk is to be open to whatever comes. I am not searching for something specific, and thus I cannot get in my own way by setting the wrong parameters.
I am just going for walk, with that being my only aim, and the force which often restricts my vision rather than widening it begins to dissipate. Relaxing into the silence, rhythm and ease of a walk allows me to be with myself as I am, rather than as I am trying to be in orientation toward some specific goal.
I’m not doing anything besides walking. When I step outside for a walk, I am not expecting anything besides the walking itself. It feels like a letting-go rather than a pursuit-of.
The ideas which come always surprise me. They may be something I’ve read or heard which I hadn’t remembered in a long time. They could be words a loved one shared with me that had become hidden. Or it could suddenly be a connection between parts of the puzzle which I had never considered putting together that way.
It is within the walking that I cease being stuck in place, and surprises, both in the world and of my thought, are gifted to me. Maybe this is a bit of what Nietzsche meant in his quote, and I’m sure he would have loved snow-shoeing as well.