Walking the Line: The Joy of Zigzag

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Watch some children out for a walk and you’ll see a lot of meandering to and fro as they make fascinating discoveries on all sides. So why do adults seem to prefer to walk in straight lines instead? What do our kids know that we’ve forgotten?

I think I may have identified a new defining stage in the developmental process from childhood to adulthood: never mind your oral, anal and phallic stages (Freud) or your Trust vs Mistrust, Autonomy vs Shame stages (Erikson) and the rest. No, what you want to look out for is the moment that you find yourself, or see your offspring, walking in straight lines rather than zigzagging from one fascinating distraction to another. That’s the turning point, I reckon.

I wrote recently about how going for a walk is a pleasure in itself and therefore philosophically different from other, more outcome-orientated leisure activities like football or athletics or even paintball. (See “The Philosopher’s Walking Cure”.) It occurred to me the other day, watching a group of families with children, that there’s an even finer distinction to be made within the genre (for want of a better word) of ‘going for a walk’: there’s your common or garden variety walking along a path or pavement, one foot stepping in front of the other, and more or less following a straight line from A to B; and then there’s your more whimsical, spontaneous, non-linear progression which is very far from being a straight line and much more determined by the need to investigate a butterfly over here, a strange-looking twig over there, a great big seashell on one side or a pretty ladybird on the other.

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There’s seeing the big picture: “The sky’s blue, it’s breezy but warm, the sea is choppy and my aren’t there a lot of people out for a walk today!” And then there’s seeing the beauty in the detail: “That cloud up there looks just like a rabbit’s head, and that bird’s nest has an egg in it.” The ‘over there’ of a moment ago becomes the ‘over here’ of now, and vice versa. It’s all an exciting walk of discovery — and that’s the kind of magical, zigzagging walk that we tend to leave behind as we ‘mature’ into adults. Having said that, I’d hazard a guess that a lot of zigzagging still goes on within clothes or food stores, from one strategically-placed display of brightly-coloured fancies to another!

Straight lines are not natural; show me a straight line, and I’ll show you a manmade structure. Curves and zigzags and seemingly random meanderings are natural phenomena; it’s humanity that imposes straight lines on the natural world, whether that be buildings or roads or railway lines. In our hurry to get from A to B, what are we missing out on in the in-between places we pass through? What do we miss in the ‘here and now’ because our thoughts are elsewhere and ‘elsewhen’?

Our lives may be lived within the straight-lined structures and demands of an industrialised society, but is there any need, when simply going for a walk, to impose straight lines on ourselves too? How and when do we lose that zigzagging spontaneity and start following a straighter — and arguably less interesting — path? Couldn’t we just let the linear, destination-focused mindset slip for a little while and rediscover what our younger selves knew all too well — the joy of zigzagging from one fascinating pearl to another?

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