Walking relaxes me, recharges me, releases my thinking. It has taught me so much. But there’s a recent period when I’m not walking very much at all. I have a very nasty gut infection: parasites, bacteria, fungi. They’re all partying like mad. I’m doing the exact opposite. I slip into depression.
It’s a place I never expected to be. Depression is a place of such depth, darkness, and despair that the only thread I can cling onto is the one that tells me that the huddle on the sofa isn’t the real me. Being able to stand outside yourself and see yourself from another perspective is a key life skill. In coaching speak, it’s called taking a meta-position. I’m so glad I learned it all those years ago at ITS. In this instance, it may have saved my life.
Even in the midst of my depression, some of my strongest traits continue to be in evidence. My driving need to achieve something every day is a good example. Mary Tudor famously said:
’When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying in my heart’.
When I am dead and opened, you shall find that my blood vessels are twisted wires of Protestant work ethic and conscientiousness.
The power of the Protestant work ethic
Even though I know I’m incapable of doing anything apart from meeting my survival needs, I still write ‘to do’ lists. They litter the ottoman in front of me and become objects of torment and reproach. Every task – no matter how simple – appears as a series of obstacles that I can’t even begin to overcome.
One morning while fiddling listlessly with my iPad, I catch sight of a social media post I created months before. Here it is.
The child in that picture could be the poster boy for depression. And I’ve morphed into him. I’ve descended into a place where no-one and nothing can reach me – apart from this whisper of wisdom from my former self. I don’t feel like going for a walk. But I do it anyway. Let’s face it: I don’t have any other plans.
I decide to walk to my second nearest favourite supermarket. It’s a distance of 2.5 kms. I tell myself how pathetic that is, given that I’ve covered 45+ kms in a single day on the Camino. But that’s on a good day. This is not one of those. At this point, my critical inner voice is in control.
The ‘still, small voice of calm’
As I fall into my natural walking rhythm, another voice – softer, more compassionate – makes itself heard. Gathering all its forces, it urges:
Screw the ‘to dos’.
The mere thought of it panics me, but I continue listening to what John Greenleaf Whittier called ‘the still, small voice of calm’:
You only have one ‘to do’ and that’s to get better.
Of course. There are no other priorities.
As so often when I’m walking, I feel something shift within me.
Once more settled on my sofa at home, I see my ‘to do’ lists on the ottoman. One of the more urgent items catches my eye. I have to contact the US conference venue where I’m supposed – depression permitting – to be delivering my next big speech in three months’ time. As a dyspraxic, I need a lapel microphone. One swift glance at the clock to check the time difference, and I’m on the phone to the venue.
That which was previously impossible is now eminently possible – thanks to the power of walking to shift priorities.