As I prepare for my upcoming long drive to a conference, I am humbled by two thoughts. (1) A huge number of Americans take car trips like this, and longer, all the time, and would regard it as no big deal. (2) I’ve been following Marshall Massey’s walking journey with great interest and enthusiasm. His original plan was to walk from Omaha, Nebraska to Harrisonburg, Virginia (a distance of 1150 miles), meeting with Friends along the way, and ending up at Baltimore Yearly Meeting on July 31 to give the keynote lecture about living in harmony with God’s creation. He set off on his journey on May 13, but along the way, he has developed bursitis in his ankles, which has limited the amount of walking that he can do, but he is still trying to do some walking each day as he continues his journey after medical attention.
I still do think that long journeys are a big deal, whatever the mode of transport. I am very attracted to making such journeys on one’s own power, and in the past, I did some bicycle journeys of my own. I have always dreamed of doing a long walking journey some day. So I am very moved to read Marshall Massey’s account of his adventures.
Even though Marshall is finding himself daunted by his own physical limitations, somehow this aspect itself seems to be an important part of his story, and an important lesson to all of us. We have come to take for granted the luxury of today’s modes of travel. How many of us today could physically endure even 1% of the travel we routinely engage in without incurring serious injury?
Marshall’s story reminds us of our own fragility as biological beings. Our technology has protected us, but also has weakened us and alienated us from the earth which nurtures our life. The “protection” might be an illusion, as long as we continue to build our technological systems at odds with the biological health of our planet. As Marshall continues determinedly to limp as best as he can across our beautiful but scarred land, his story is all of our story. We may think ourselves healthy as we zoom through the same landscape in the air-conditioned comfort of our cars, but we carry the spiritual wounds of alienation as the beauty of the landscape blurs past mostly unnoticed through the fog of our rapidly spinning anxious thoughts.
My journey won’t be as long or as physically taxing, but it will still be a journey: a journey through my own fears and my ambivalence about car culture. I will try to notice the landscape and be aware of my body in motion across the land. But most of my attention will be occupied with negotiating with other vehicles along the highways, doing my share, as best as I can, to keep the roads and highways safe.
It is bizarre and surreal that we engage in this form of transportation where small errors of judgment can yield disastrous consequences in an instant. Why do we accept this? Or maybe I should ask a different question: how do we accept this? Answer: through denial. And so because we can, we do, and we never really get to the “why?” question.
The truth is, we as individuals don’t think we have much choice. This just is how things are. If we want to be fully-functioning, productive members of society, this is the kind of thing we must learn to do, without questioning it. Maybe we even convince ourselves that it is fun, or that it is really wonderful that we can do this. And it is true that it makes much possible that would have been impossible before. But the fun has worn off. Technology that used to be fun and exciting when it was new has now become a necessity. It controls us; we don’t control it.
What will it take to get us back to living in better harmony with our natural environment? I think the answer is, at least in part: when we begin to do a better job refusing to let our technologies and systems control us.
This may be what I find most inspiring about Marshall’s journey. He reminds us how hard it really is to get from one place to another place very far away. The wounds he takes on reminds us of the real costs of such journeys: costs we have transferred to our cars which then in turn inflict the wounds upon the earth and the atmosphere; these wounds then ricocheting back upon us in more subtle ways, through environmentally caused illnesses, stress-induced illnesses, and spiritual alienation.
But Marshall is trying his individual human best to regain control over one kind of technological dependency. His limited success and his physical pain in the process soberingly demonstrate how powerless we are as individuals. The systems we have created are huge and complex; individual choices within these systems are limited and individual efforts to challenge the systems are mostly ineffectual. Marshall vividly bears witness to this, and those of us who watch his journey bear witness too. His story presses upon us the urgency of the need for change, if we wish to restore our harmonious relationship with the biosphere that supports our life.
6 years ago