A Linear Cycle

What a Walk Through Spain Says About a Post-Pandemic World

By: Tom Bussen

Freedom without structure is its own slavery.

-David Brooks

These pandemic months have for many been a time of struggle and isolation, but for some of the more fortunate among us – able to work remotely from our new “home offices” – they have also presented an opportunity to simplify our lives, to slow down, and to smell the proverbial roses.  I have spoken with family and friends for instance, who have nearly all expressed a sort of bemused surprise at the joys of working from home.  Having chosen my own academic-writing career in part due to the opportunities for much work to take place remotely – I haven’t worked regularly in an office for at least 7 years – I can only nod knowingly.  But as the Covid crisis continues, perhaps with an end in sight, many of us are beginning to look towards what comes next.  The question thus arises as to whether we go back to what came before, or whether we cling onto some of the silver linings that this crisis forced upon us.

This all led me to consider: what is it that motivates us?  What are we if shorn of our daily work routines?  And why is it that, at worst, we desire tranquility when busy, and activity when at ease?

Flash back to the summer of 2018, a pre-pandemic world in which I had the luxury to hike 500 miles across the northern reaches of Spain, from the rolling mountains of the Pyrenees, across the flat expanses not too far from where the escapades of Don Quixote took imagination, to the majestic square of Santiago de Compostela.  Along that trail there were not only like-minded souls in search of tranquility, but trailside signs and well intentioned graffiti offering psychological support and words of wisdom.  My favorite quote is this one, spray painted on a sign in the middle of the forest, and which is attributed to the French existentialist Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” 

In the 30 days of walking, sometimes in rain, sometimes heat, through forests and fields, medieval villages, cities and country roads, I felt more than anything else a sense of bliss and, yes, freedom, like I had never before experienced.  I was experiencing a peace that I had never known before I was lacking; only its presence signaled a possibility which I have ever since sought to recapture – with varying degrees of success.  This sentiment was captured in an Eddie Vedder song that became part of my daily playlist, entitled “Society”, and which included these lyrics: 

We have a greed with which we have agreed
You think you have to want more than you need
Until you have it all you won’t be free

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me

When you want more than you have
You think you need
And when you think more than you want
Your thoughts begin to bleed

In the book Wild, the author Cheryl Strayed expresses a similar sense of utter peace as she walked 1,100 miles from the Mojave Desert to the Washington-Oregon border.  So too does the author Bill Bryson as he recounts his nearly 1000 mile walk along the Appalachian Trail, and even the movie Forest Gump tamps into this tranquility as Gump attracts a band of followers as he walks the American countryside. What is it about all of this walking that leaves so many of us waxing lyrical, reaching for the existential metaphors about life’s meaning?

There are no doubt a multitude of explanations, but the most important factor for me came from the single-minded clarity of purpose.  For the first time in my adult life I did not have a to-do list stretching endlessly from one page to the next – indeed, the few stressful moments I recall were when my “real” work so rudely interrupted my meanderings on the trail. I recall, for instance, a hot day on a hard scrabble trail, holding a long-winded conference call as I walked, and not coincidentally feeling the pain of the days exertions particularly well.

Camino de Santiago Frances - Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France | AllTrails
A map of El Camino Frances, the Western France to Western Spain route which I took

But usually, I had just one focus – to get from point A, the place where I had to slept, to point B, the place where I would sleep – along with a few intermediary goals, such as nourishing my body with food and water along the way, stretching my sore muscles when needed, and perhaps stopping to admire a historic building or panoramic vista.  This simplicity is captured by a figure that knows better than most about the power of simplification – the transcendental naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  With his timeless wisdom, Thoreau wrote: “Our life is frittered away by details. Simplify, simplify”. In the same vein, he wrote: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Thoreau hits upon an important point: One must “afford” to let things alone.  For some, this is easier than for others.  If you have a family, growing kids, tuition or other bills, health concerns or aging parents, then it may be that you cannot afford to let alone quite a number of stress-inducing things.  But what can you let go?  Maybe it is small; maybe it is big; but I dare say there is something, and maybe even many things.  Let me give you an example: while I pride myself on informing myself of current affairs in the United States and elsewhere, I have dramatically reduced the amount of news I take in. During this time of national strife, the news is something which is almost invariably negative.  And though I didn’t so much notice the negativity each day while reading the news, once I had limited my consumption of daily news, focusing instead on big picture issues presented in books or documentaries, I found a sort of lifting of my spirit.  

Image may contain: Tom Bussen and Alex Simmons, people smiling
Starting the Camino hike on a rainy, blustery day in Western France

There is perhaps another reason that the forward motion of relentless walking brings such calm, and on this point I am more uncertain whether to celebrate, or to instead rehabilitate. I engage with this world, and perhaps you do too, in a linear way. That is to say, I think about growing my capacities, advancing my career.  It is a relentless forward pursuit, and it is oftentimes frustrating. While Lincoln proclaimed that he walked slowly but never backwards, there are factors both within and outside of our control that may derail our progress – a bad economy, a poor job choice, or, yes, a global pandemic.  And even if those challenges are overcome, what are we marching towards?  What is the end game?  

Financial stability and retirement is perhaps the finish line.  But, and the research is clear on this point – those of us that look towards extrinsic motivators, such as money, are the least satisfied among us.  It may be that, valuable as a long-time horizon can be, we are missing the chance to be in the moment, as I was forced to be each day along that Spanish trail.

Perhaps, though, there is another way to think about life.  Not as an endless forward lurch, up until the moment – be it in old age or during an economic downturn – when we are inevitably pushed backwards like a lineman losing his position; but rather as a cycle, turning upon itself time and again.  While the Western way of thinking is decidedly linear and forward driven, this alternative perspective shapes many current and historical cultures of the world.  Take the Mayans, who not only had a 365 day calendar incorporating the cycles of the season, but also a 260 day ritual calendar.  While each of these were cyclical – as are all calendars – these ostensibly separate calendars were themselves cyclical, matching every 52 years. This reflected the Mayan belief that time is not linear, but rather a cyclical process of return and renewal – one which, it might be added, rather closely matches the biological reality of the world in which we live.

The martial art feng shui is a practical application of this circularity, as well.  The two elements of feng shui are wind and water, each to be held in harmony: if the water flows too fast there is flooding; but too slow, and there is drought; similarly, a wind too strong brings down buildings, while wind too slow fills the air with rot.  

If the last decades of professional life have for many been characterized as full throttled forward momentum, the last months have for many featured a full stop.  Neither is ideal. As the New York Times’ columnist David Brooks writes: “Freedom without structure is its own slavery.” And so it is that we may seek tranquility when at our busiest, and activity when tranquil.   Like wind and water, like long-distance hikers working towards a long-term goal yet immersed in the joys of the immediate environment, let us all seek to temper our post-pandemic ambitions with our gratitude for the moment.