A few more thoughts on walking

Sixth walk done. Yesterday I had the usual Saturday obligations with my Dad (breakfast with some of his friends, a trip to La Mesa (an hour away) to visit relatives. And most of the day it was pouring rain. So, many good excuses for skipping a day. But around 2:30pm the rain stopped, and I decided to give walking a try at 3pm. Fine, of course. Today the schedule is unusual again—my Dad leaves for church at 8:30, I do laundry and other small chores before heading over for the 11am service, we get home around 12:30, go out to eat around 2pm, back around 3. But I woke up sort of knowing that I would start the washer at 8:30, go for the walk, then have plenty of time to finish chores before church.

Don’t be concerned that this is one in a long series of posts about walking. It will likely be the last time I use it as a topic. And when I write about my walking or eating habits, it’s not about the walking or eating but about the habits, and not even about the habits but the use of the habits as disciplines. Walking and eating are just two areas where I am currently focused on disciplining my behavior, and the best examples at hand for illustrating what I want to say.

I gave a favorable mention to Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret—the motivational power of growing a chain of successes, e.g. taking a walk every day—but I’d like to qualify my recommendation. Without a solid understanding of what you’re doing and why in growing the chain, it’s easy to misplace the significance of your efforts, perhaps even undermine them. At a conference on Dallas Willard’s work, John Ortberg said:

Many, many years ago I wanted to learn how to pray, so I got involved in an Ignatian prayer group. We made a commitment, and we prayed each day and then gathered every week to learn. One of the men in the group came in one day and said, “I have now prayed thirty-two days in a row.” Our leader, Sister Jean, replied, “Tomorrow, don’t pray.” When I was growing up,

When I was growing up, nobody would have said, “Don’t pray,” as spiritual advice. I would have said, “Man, you could be like Cal Ripken. I’m not sure what the record for consecutive days prayed is, but you know, go for it.” But Sister Jean recognized that inside him was a spirit of self-righteous judgment: “I’ve got my spiritual life in order, so why can’t you do that? Why can’t you pray thirty-two days in a row?” It was destroying the fruit of the Spirit in him. So the spiritual practice, the discipline that would most benefit him, was the discipline of abstaining from praying.

I think Ortberg is correct that there is a temptation in developing a habit of acting virtuously, a danger of becoming self-righteously satisfied, or disdainful of those who aren’t as virtuous. But I suspect there may have been more to Sister Jean’s instruction. Ortberg says he wanted to learn how to pray, and since I assume he knew the mechanics of prayer I think he means he wanted to learn how to pray regularly. But Sister Jean seems to be applying a higher standard—teaching her pupils how to become prayerful persons, the kind of person who responds unthinkingly with prayer when the situation calls for it.

And focusing on the achievement itself—hey, 32 days in a row now!—actually undermines the effort to respond naturally with prayer by making prayer an artificial, scheduled thing, an item to check off a list. The purpose of praying every day is not to check an item off the holiness list, or to impress God or your neighbors, or to allocate your spiritual resources. It is simply to exercise the prayer muscle, and as such it is only useful for people whose prayer muscle is so weak that it can’t be employed in situations that call for it. But once it is strong enough—perhaps made so through scheduled prayer, perhaps in other ways—then it is time to deal with whatever else is preventing us from behaving as prayerful persons.

This is a powerful idea: we aren’t called to do good things, but to become the kind of person who does those things. And I can vouch for this idea based on long years of experience. Perhaps I learned it from Willard (he says it repeatedly), perhaps I learned it independently, but it was responsible for my first shock of recognition just a few pages into re-reading him:

Love, as Paul and the New Testament presents it, is not action—not even action with a special intention—but a source of action. It is a condition out of which actions of a certain type emerge. […]

Paul understood the fallacy of those who say “I just can’t love so and so,” and there they stop and give up on love. He knew that they were working at the wrong level. They should not try to love that person but try to become the kind of person who would love them. Only so can the ideal of love pass into a real possibility and practice. Our aim under love is not to be loving to this or that person, or in this or that kind of situation, but to be a person possessed by love as an overall character of life, whatever is or is not going on. The “occasions” are met with from that overall character. I do not come to my enemy and then try to love them, I come to them as a loving person.

Or, clearest of all:

We do not achieve the disposition of agape love by direct effort, but by attending to and putting into place the conditions out of which it arises.

And so my effort to establish a pattern of regular walking is not about walking, or successfully establishing a habit, or burning calories, or taking a break from work, or using my non-working time more productively—even though all those things play a part. It is about attending to and putting into place the condition out of which will arise … something.

But what? Well, in a very real sense, becoming a walking-ful person, the sort of person who naturally walks when the situation calls for it. Why? Because I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that my life is out of balance in that area. Not meaning that a good person walks at least a certain number of steps each day, but that a balanced life is one that has more physical activity than mine does, and walking regularly is a good way to remedy that—good not just for the physical activity, but for taking me away from the computer (better than a treadmill desk), and out into the open air (better than a gym membership), and affords me the opportunity to become more observant (no earbuds, please).

Which is why I was pleased to find that this morning I was semi-consciously figuring out how to arrange my day so as to fit in a walk. I hope soon that I won’t need the motivation of “don’t break the chain”, and going for a walk will simply be a default behavior. And that missing a walk will not leave me feeling defeated, but simply out of sorts.

I once heard Jim Petersen, a Navigators missionary who traveled by plane a lot, say that he used M’Cheyne’s Bible reading calendar, but not as a calendar, simply as a guide. Depending on circumstances and his mood, he would read a little or a lot as he sat in an airport. His purpose was not to meet some sort of quota, but to “keep his head on straight”, and he found regular Bible reading a good practice for that. (He also mentioned that he always saw something different as he read, because he always approached the reading with whatever questions happened to be on his mind. Good advice, that.)

So, enough thoughts on walking. I’ll pick a different habit next time I need to discuss habits. But habits—yes, you’ll be reading a lot about those.

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