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These questions are made for walking

“Solvitur ambulando,” said Diogenes the Cynic. “It is solved by walking.” This is the same Diogenes who went about ancient Athens at mid-day, carrying a lighted lamp, “looking for an honest man”—apparently as rare a specimen 2,500 years ago as it is today.

I adopted it as a personal mantra a number of years ago when I was going through a rough patch personally and professionally. Unable to sleep at night I was in a bad way when a friend suggested walking. I took it up as a substitute for anti-depressants and the habit has stuck.

I’ve discovered that for me, the best approach to a challenge is to simply walk it through. Judging by the number of people I encounter on my daily perambulations, I’m not only one.

Scientists tell us that humans were built for walking, a trait that goes back to our beginnings on the savannahs of Africa. These days the health benefits of regular exercise and the realities of climate change mean that getting out of our cars and walking is more important than ever.

It’s a great way to get around if you can arrange your day to allow for extra travel time. Even when the weather turns nasty, decent rain gear can keep you relatively comfortable.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a pastime that’s been around since the origin of our species also carries a significant spiritual component. On my shelf is a row of books about pilgrimage that have accumulated over the years; a spiritual practice that is part of every faith tradition. Christians walk the Camino. Every Muslim is expected to make the hajj to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Each time they gather to celebrate Passover, Jews remind each other, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Along the way, most pilgrims eventually discover the paradoxical truth that the journey itself is the real destination. Which brings me back to walking.

The challenge before me on my daily walks these days is how to make a graceful transition into the next chapter of life after 35 years as a pastor. I’d imagined that no longer having to prepare sermons, attend meetings, or tend to the needs of parishioners would bring a sense of liberation and it certainly has. But it’s also raised questions of purpose and identity. Who am I when I’m not “the pastor” any more?

I’ve had enough conversations with my contemporaries to recognize this as a generational phenomenon. Simply substitute teacher, doctor, truck-driver, or any other occupation for “pastor” and you uncover a question that an entire generation is or soon will be asking.

A question that big takes a longer than normal walk to fully ferment, so I’m off to Italy for a few weeks. God willing, on the day you read this, I’ll be walking through the Tuscan hills having already crossed over the border from Switzerland via the St. Bernard Pass. The first two days of my walk are uphill but after that, as they say, “it’s all downhill.”

Someone once defined discovering one’s vocation as finding the place where our deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet. It’s an ongoing task that we engage in repeatedly throughout our lives as our circumstances change. Kids grow up, relationships change, friends move away or pass on, and people retire.

They say that change is the only constant in life but for 76 million baby boomers that are approaching retirement age or have already reached it, life is about to change dramatically.

The financial planners and investment firms tell us our chief concern should be whether or not we’ll outlive our savings. It’s an important question but I’m not convinced it’s the most important.

A better place to begin might be to ask ourselves, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life to help make the world a better place for my children and grand-children, friends and neighbors?” A person can only fish or golf so many days before wondering with Peggy Lee if that’s all there is.

Just as the journey is the destination, it’s also the case that continuing to ask the question is often more important than coming up with a final answer. The poet Rilke once encouraged a young writer to be patient as she sought answers to her big questions. “Live the questions for now,” advised Rilke. “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

In the meantime, as Diogenes and Johnnie Walker both advise, keep walking.

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