“Now shall I walk, or should I ride?”
“Ride,” Pleasure said.
“Walk,” Joy replied.
In his 1914 poem The Best Friend, the Welsh poet and occasional vagabond W.H. Davies pondered a timeless question: “Now shall I walk, or should I ride?” This seemingly simple dilemma encapsulates the modern industrial choice between slow-paced ageless wandering on foot or embracing the thrill of motorized transport, along with the attendant speed and freedom it offers, which has become such an integral part of our contemporary lifestyle. It likewise speaks volumes about us and about the nature of the choices we make daily.
Gone perhaps are the days of poetic musings over the merits of walking versus riding. Yet one can’t help but wonder if we have lost something essential along the way—a connection with the world that only a leisurely walk can provide. So, while technology continues to shape our lives, perhaps it is worth revisiting the inner struggle once posed by Davies by embracing the joy of walking seen through the eyes of the renowned author C.S. Lewis. He firmly aligned himself with an unwavering affirmative response toward “joy,” and it was with this same purpose in mind that I applied and was accepted to the C.S. Lewis Scholars in Residence Program at The Kilns, Oxford. There I resided for a time, tracing Lewis’s daily footsteps and exploring metaphors of movement just after finishing a walk along the ancient Ridgeway with my son Dillon [see “Walking with Thoreau” Parabola Fall 2023]. An experience that had us wildcrafting our own essentially joyful connection with the land that engaged body, soul, and spirit. It is this connection, or experience, that I will refer to as an expression of the triune (three-tiered) brain of the human nervous system,1 and what I sensed Lewis was likewise on the scent of and tracking down in his own search.
Lewis, while growing up in the outskirts of Belfast, Northern Ireland, counted it among his blessings that his father had no car, so the deadly power of rushing about wherever he pleased had not been given to him. He thus measured distance by the standard of a man walking on his two feet and not by the standard of the internal combustion engine, for it is here where both space and time is annihilated by the deflowering of distance. In return, he possessed “infinite riches” in comparison to what would have been to motorists a “little room.” Key to those riches was what he came to call, and experience throughout life as, “joy,” and walking became a portal through which he sought it. A participatory engagement with life and living which I contend is as vital to our survival as breathing itself.
Lewis first experienced this sensation he describes as “joy” when still just a small boy, when his brother Warnie created a little moss toy garden on the tin lid of a biscuit can. The second glimpse of that inner state, one of incalculable importance that called from another dimension, came when he read Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, and the idea of Autumn possessed him in the same surprising way. His third glimpse came through Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf when hearing the reference to “Baldur the beautiful,” and later, with everything considered part and parcel of “Northernness.” This “lifted up” inner state of being (“joy”) became the “hook” that captured his powers of attention, and an apotheosis of longing that fueled his “seeking” habits throughout the rest of his life.
Lewis characterized his lifelong search,2 poised within the Cartesian dichotomy between matter and mind so prevalent to his time (as it is for ours still), as the contention between two devils: the materialistic devil and that of the world beyond it. The way out for this divided self, or Psychomachia (the conflict of the soul between the virtues and the vices), and a bulwark against both, was for Lewis what he calls “experience”; and it was this shared sense and understanding of the term that I discovered when tracking his footsteps (words and deeds) in and around Oxford. It is the simultaneous expression, or movement, of attention within the human triune brain that constitutes real experience, and what I believe we are relating to when we are engaged in a “body, soul, and spirit” manner, and exactly what fueled Lewis’s passion for walking. It was walking, when practiced this way, that became “infinite riches” and the real experience that placed him squarely in the moment as an engaged participant, and not a mere spectator where one stands separate from the world. What Lewis liked best about experience “is that it is such an honest thing. You might take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself (the devils), but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.” And the “experience” which called him all his life was that of joy. This quest, to understand the disordering and reordering of these desires, became the central story of his life, placing him front and center as “the fool of this story.”
Relative to this, while at the Kilns, I was struck by a moment Lewis reported having in his toolshed3, which I found useful to ponder. It was in observing a sunbeam when standing in the dark of the toolshed, noting the difference between looking at something versus looking along it. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door came a sunbeam, with specks of dust floating in it, which became the most striking thing in the place as everything else was almost pitch black. When he moved, so the beam fell on his eyes, the whole previous picture vanished. He saw no toolshed and no beam; instead, framed by the cranny at the top of the door, there were green leaves moving on the branches of the tree outside. When seeing this simple distinction Lewis realized that we get one experience of a thing when we “look along it” and another when we “look at it.” Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? he asks. This “either/or” dichotomy, whether in the toolshed, the flesh/visceral view of science “looking at,” or the world beyond, the spirit/cerebral man of religion “looking along,” was eventually reconciled for him via a perception, or law, shared by his essence friend Owen Barfield4 concerning the Law of Polarity.
Lewis’s most scholarly work, An Allegory of Love, is dedicated to Barfield5 as the “Wisest and Best of My Unofficial Teachers.” For Barfield, the apparent duality of opposite forces is the manifestation of a prior unity, which is a power. Not an abstraction of thought (looking at or along) but a dynamic movement of mind where the creative tension between, and reconciliation of, opposing forces requires our innate capacity to image or perceive. For Barfield, and in time for Lewis, that power is the germinal essence of what theology calls divine love and is the macrocosmic expression of God. Within the microscopic world of the human, this complimentary power is expressed via the level of attention toward all “other” (aka life). This dialog between Lewis and Barfield, extending over the years and most often during their long walks and rambles through the English countryside, was called by their Inkling6 friends “the Great War,” and was what eventually resulted in Lewis’s reluctant conversion to Christianity, and the evolutionary step toward his being recognized as the twentieth century’s greatest Christian Apologist.
Barfield, influenced heavily by Goethe’s insight into the dynamics of plant growth,7 and his perception of the archetypal image of plant form within the leaf as a transformer of light into matter, perceived the reconciliation of opposites and the metamorphosis of man, or what he saw as the evolution of consciousness, within the hidden, unseen power of love. For Lewis, it was the unseen, mysterious longing called joy that ultimately reconciled the devils within and brought him to his perception of joy as that call to open a space for God (Love) to reside in his heart. In the leaf, for Goethe, light became alive; for Lewis it was the power of attention residing in his heart that brought the love of God alive. In the heart, attention becomes alive, which Lewis saw as the work of the gods when fashioning Man, and it was often via his experiences when walking, like Goethe, where such inspiration found a human home. This was the “heart of the matter” for Lewis’s life search, and the tracks he left for us to follow mark the highlights of his literary career.8
The greatest concern for Lewis though, relative to the human story and what he stood witness to as an educator, was what he called “men without chests.”9 For Lewis the task of the modern educator was not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. And the heart, that indispensable liaison officer between cerebral man and visceral man, was rapidly undergoing a process of desertification via the emergent modern industrial culture. If true that by intellect we are mere spirit and by appetite mere animal, then that same dichotomous drought Lewis witnessed, I fear, has metamorphosed into the juggernaut called today. Considering the multiple assertions within the realm of scholarly thought suggesting that we see only what our ideas allow us to see, there was deep concern about the way our industrialized culture shaped much of our perception during Lewis’s day, and much more so today. Many share the view that our spectator-driven industrial reality (memes and media) has become a potent creative force, influencing our personal and collective stories, and potentially stunting our development and evolution. Some fear that we are living primarily within our own minds, engaged in a peculiar form of intraspecies incest where psychic numbing serves as a defense mechanism against the overwhelming assault on our senses. That disconnect severely limits one’s capacity for joy, for it is that loss of connection to others that drives us toward that isolation of being so characterized by Lewis as heartless. That archetypal image and idea of a third force, or power, reconciling the devils of dismay for Lewis was brilliantly presented in his An Allegory of Love as a story worth noting where the “romance of the rose” poetry of the Middle Ages was given its greatest expression through the schools that built the great cathedrals of the day. All serving as a reminder to turn our gaze inward toward the seat of such power.
For Lewis, the commitment to move in such a direction was gifted via that archetypal birth-rite and hallmark of the human species called bipedal movement. Much like John Muir, who found that when “I only went out for a walk and … going out, I found, was really going in,” Lewis found walking to be the portal through which that apotheosis of longing called “joy” turned his vision inward as well. Walking, for Lewis, called upon and enhanced all his senses, not only waking himself up, but bringing him closest to that joy, or experiential event that resonated with the essence of being human. It is said that real perception transcends mere cerebral activity, or mechanical associative thought, and embodies a participatory exchange between us and the world, an act of engagement. Vision, which perhaps represents the most synesthetic sense, incorporates listening, touching, feeling, and even tasting. According to Empedocles, the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, created the eye, and a theory of vision suggesting that it requires a harmony between the fire within us and the external fire of light. True sight and insight rely on resonance—a vibrant relationship between the seer and the seen and a state of being fully engaged and participating in the world. Vision and human perception become acts of translation between the inner and outer landscapes, awakening us from our sleepy denial of the real world and liberating us from mindless collusion with the virtual. Here Lewis reminds us that “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend … in fact to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.” This is the true task of the human participatory engagement in the great dance of life.
To this end I too was on the hunt for such a trigger, or metaphor, that would serve as that constant reminder for reawakening. Some metaphorical image that would assist in continuing to write my own story, like the metaphorical “cart, horse, and driver” story out of Eastern fables yet something more of my own design. While residing at the Kilns I learned from those more steeped in Lewis lore than I that all of his stories came to him as an image long before ever becoming a book. With that kind of soul nourishment in mind I often practice the discipline of emptying my mind when out walking in order to create the space where some image may enter, which is easily done, or when “seeing and being truly “mindful” of the beauty of great nature, I enter into communion with nature, “hearing” its voice.
One of the most powerful, and useful, exchanges I have had over time was when once walking England’s Southwest Coastal Path and the image of a common sea squirt “magically” entered my mind’s eye. Whether due to my academic background or the constant observation of the jetsam and flotsam washed up along the long miles of beach I will never really know, but it was a delightful image to ponder for it spoke volumes to me in respect to the significance of the bipedal penchant to walk. Sea squirts are interesting in that their life cycle marks the possible point in evolutionary time where sedentary life forms (plants) bifurcated into life forms (animals) capable of self-directed movement. Worth noting is that during the larval stage of growth, sea squirts are required to grow a “brain” (primitive notochord), enabling them to move by somersaulting to new locations, where they revert to a sessile, plantlike lifestyle once again and where that rudimentary brain disappears. What struck me was the connection between movement and a brain. Does self-directed movement (walking) require the brain, or is it that the brain requires movement? What happens if we sit too much as spectators of life? Will the human story thus become one seen as thoughtless?
Self-directed motion, as in physical body movement through space, required a brain. We find when looking back over the evolutionary pathway that the human bipedal form followed over the past few million years, that the evolution of the brain was in lockstep with our journey out of Africa onto its current assumed mastery of the planet. Trees and other forms of sessile plant life, although sentient, haven’t required one. Without going into the plethora of scientific data supporting the wide-ranging evidence extolling the benefits of walking, I will simply place walking in a more elevated role respective to the health and welfare of our collective story, and say for myself that the image, or metaphor, of the “Walker” is what I identify with most, and ponder the quest(ion) of an allegory of walking thus becoming the evolutionary story of humanity.
In that thought, and idea, lies great comfort and joy. ◆
1 See Man – A Three Brained Being by Keith Buzzell; Fifth Press, Salt Lake City 2007.
2 Surprised By Joy by C.S. Lewis; HarperOne 2017.
3 Meditation in a Toolshed; from God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
by C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper.
4 Owen Barfield was one of the main members of the Inklings.
5 Either/Or, from Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis by Owen Barfield; Wesleyan University Press 1989.
6 The Inklings; see The Fellowship by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2015.
7 Italian Journey by Goethe.
8 The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis; Simon & Schuster 2011.
9 The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis; Lits 2010.
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2023 issue of Parabola, COMFORT & JOY. You can find the full issue on our online store.