“What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook.”
H.D. Thoreau (October 31, 1850, journal)
Let’s begin with taking a look at the world of todays adolescent and see if we can put this unique and somewhat explosive period into a healthy perspective.
Everyone, of course, will have their personal take upon the task. Any adolescent reading these words will view it from the immediateness of the present moment, while adults involved with or charged for the care of our youth, will have a perspective from over their shoulder, which must lawfully be colored by personal experience. As educators, we have always felt privileged for we have not just our memories, but we likewise have the opportunity to see it through young eyes today – a real gift! A gift because, at that moment, if we are awake and present to the gift, they allow us inside their world.
Suffice it to be mentioned here at the outset that my perspective upon the current state of the world in respect to the adolescent is that it is best summarized and characterized as being a lost world. Lost to them, and lost to us; lost because it is forgotten. And, more sadly within the range of possibility, non-existent.
Nothing is simple of course, especially once one starts to look at it with a pondering eye. First, I will venture that adolescents haven’t been forgotten as much as they have been “targeted” and viewed as a market. Our adult task is what’s being forgotten! Currently, plenty of attention and intention is at work in the world regarding video games, smartphones, apps, and text messaging that do indeed make them forget, while Colleges, universities, GAP programs, and sports leagues round it out further. A true smorgish-board of possible interaction for our youth to fill their days.
In no small measure though our youth are falling into the ranks of what we call the spectator society. They sit. Locked into screens watching life go by. Passive and content; inhabiting a series of interiors where real connections are seldom seen.
On average we are told that our youth are spending 9 hours a day looking at a screen, and it is predicted to move to 10 -11 hrs/day. Considering that they also like, and need, to sleep a lot, that fills a rather a large part of anyone’s day. Which doesn’t leave much time for anything bordering on the experience of reality – or experiences that includes an element of relationship to life and the living. Life, for the adolescent, is, unfortunately, becoming all too virtual.
And the interiors I speak of here is the petition of a daily routine moving from house to car, to school, to car and gymnasiums, music lessons, and meeting places which we seldom walk to anymore. When rewinding back to our homes at days end, we discover we have little connection to space between any of these places or areas where we have spent our day, thus lacking critical connections within our brain which are tasked with making some kind of coherent sense out of a days stream of activities. Too much of life is conducted in the fast lane of 65mph, and we would advocate for a serious shift to a mode of engagement that gets us back to life at 3mph (aka walking). How else does one relish, enjoy, and value any experience if not savored?
Next, the maps of life guidance we pass on and often force feed to them (aka “school”) don’t offer real help or assistance. Instructions, orders, dictates, rules & regulations, fears, and apprehensions – yes, but not help in really navigating the times they live through though. They enter adolescence hard-wired into the relationship and discover the modern brave new world of existence which is often devoid of meaning, value, and loving relationships. A world of things; material possessions, jobs, goals & objectives, and bricks & mortar physical spaces where we work through our day, yet with less and less, or diminishing human interaction for perspective. We inhabit a very narrow world shaped by bandwidths that are fearfully nuclear concerning the real-time relationship with the world of great nature. Within certain realms of thought this is referred to as a biophobic condition and in stark contrast to a more natural human state seen as biphobia.
What we offer societally, in regards to philosophical maps, reminds me of what E.F. Schumacher spoke to over 50 years ago in his book A Guide For The Perplexed when on a visit to Leningrad, Russia when attempting to follow maps while exploring the city. While trying to orient his position on the ground to the map, he could see several enormous churches, but there was no reference to them on his map. When asking the trips interpreter to explain the discrepancy, he was told that the state didn’t show churches on their maps, only what they referred to like museums, and not live or living churches. It occurred to Schumacher then and there that this was not the first time he been given a map which failed to show many things that he could see and experience with his own eyes. It took years of perplexity to eventually get to the point where he stopped suspecting the sanity of his perceptions and began, instead, doubting the soundness of the maps. Any maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist; “if in doubt, leave it out,” or put it in a museum was what he was left with in regards to philosophical map makers. Schumacher’s rather sober musings led him to recognize that “the more thoroughly acquainted we became with the details of the map, the more we absorbed what it showed and got used to the absence of the things it did not show, the more perplexed, unhappy, and cynical we became.”
For us, this becomes a more pressing realization and the question today as our virtual world view appears to keep us locked collectively in a stupor of complacency and absolute belief in the integrity of our maps. That we are more perplexed, unhappy, and cynical needs only reflection upon the daily news to make one ponder how significant the dangers are today – 50 years later.
Why are we not paying attention to this?
It’s something we hear, and are told, often. Right from the start, and right out of the gaits, we’re told to pay attention. From day one at school, until we walk out the doors of our academic institutions, we are held by this question, command, or directive. Pay attention!
It could be the secret key that opens many “doors” in life; if that is, we are looking for such openings.
It’s just isn’t with school though where we confront these wise and straightforward words, it’s within all phases, activities, and engagements throughout life. I almost think these words determine our world at times. Or at least to the point where just about everyone is vying for that attention. I mean, think of advertising as one small example; you might not be hearing those exact words, but it is the main point to all advertising. Yes?
Maybe we don’t think about it really? Or perhaps we only think about it when folks talk about its absence, like with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (ADHD), but many don’t understand what these things mean anyway. The words themselves are something of a mystery to us, and our connection or relationship to them is mere word recognition. Or worse, as when that relationship becomes a matter of pharmaceutical remediation, which is at best just a more enticing form of seduction, and far from being a “cure” for the lack of, or diminishment of, human attentiveness.
If we were to go into a “tracking” mode of mind, we’d maybe first find that the most common definition of the word attention (at least in the field of psychology) is “the enhancement of selected sensory information.” But, as Laura Sewall (in her book Sight and Sensibility) reminds us so nicely, paying attention is not something we usually do, but something that happens to us when we will it. It is inherent human power, usually seduced, and very much in need of cultivation. William James (American psychologist and philosopher; January 1842 – August 1910) described attention as the mind “taking possession,” yet I believe, unfortunately, that we’re living in a day when it’s our minds that are being possessed, and not necessarily by our will, or volition.
And it’s here where I would happily remind and point out that a walk is something that we humans do, and doesn’t just happen to us (usually), and that the mind honestly must take possession of its workings, or else we wind up being terribly lost. The intent to walk somewhere brings about a certain level of mindful attention even at the most rudimentary level, and if one is following a way-marked path, then the keen awareness of “sign” that so readily aids and abets successful walking is a result of selected attention and the power of will in choosing to “pay” attention. How many of you have experienced the exhaustion of navigating along a sparsely marked or unmarked way, even when the demand upon physical exertion was rather slight? It becomes such a vibrant reminder of what a high level of energies are genuinely involved and being drawn out of us when we will such attentiveness. And what a diminishment of life it is in contrast when so many of us find contentment in the plethora of navigational aid devices that guide us to where we wish to go these days. A real, and full, relinquishment of human potential I fear.
A walk can become an adventure that stirs our imaginations and ignites the fires of creativity to enliven us, often resulting in many an evening around the hearth fire with stories rife with spellbinding power. All mind you, a direct result of an alignment of ours looking with thinking – a connection of matter with mind, where inner and outer landscapes are harmonized and attuned to the experience of the moment; a real human participatory involvement, or relationship, with the world powered by the seemingly simple act of paying attention. Even with the simplest of walking engagements, we find that the practice of taking walks, as a daily humanizing opportunity, unfetters the mind from the rather mindless habits introduced (unleashed) upon us from the musical distractions emanating out of our modern world. Why then are we not doing more of this then?
Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) in his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, and it may yet be born out that a daily dose of nature is a far better remedy to realigning our capacity to pay attention. A walk then may become an attuning and harmonizing of our inner and outer worlds of experience, thus bringing us back to the foundation stone realization of what it means to be in a relationship. Going for a walk is a choice of action that propels us into engagement with the world as opposed to one where we are mere spectators of it. Noted Tracker and Author Paul Rezendes said “attention is care,” where consciously placing one foot before the other may well be our full first step toward bringing us back into a relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves. The power of attention, derived from the Latin word meaning to stretch, could reclaim its birthright as the enabler of pure vision, where we may yet remember the simplicity of those prophetic words heard since childhood – pay attention. What a great stretch and stride forward that would be!
And, what then is the gift we are given to begin such an enriching journey?
Pay attention to that call of taking daily walks; it’s life’s invitation to a healthier engagement and participation in the human journey. It is, from the day we evolved into a bipedal gait, what we were indeed born to do.
So let us cultivate our power of attention to grow a greater vision, and a greater sense for what it truly means to be participating in, and engaged with, the human journey by taking a walk. It is a straightforward choice, and we need to pay attention to it. Just do it, and make that first step which is always the beginning of every adventurous journey.