How to Be Outside

In 2014, a United Nations study revealed that for the first time more people live in cities than in the country. Humans have officially become an urban creature, with an increasing number living near city centers every day. Many of us are more familiar with sirens, subways, and smog than the deep woods, open plains, or desert.

Like anyone anywhere else, city-dwellers acclimate to their surroundings. The pace of life, the smells, the organization and interrelationship of streets and buildings, the sounds, the dialect, the level of optimism, and the rest. Much of it becomes so ingrained and habitual that it’s unconscious. This is the way things are. This is the way the world works. But the gradual fading of awareness to surroundings does not mean they don’t have a significant impact.

We’re only beginning to understand what things like traffic, pollution, and frenetic days of production and consumption do to us biologically. Sometimes, we’ll get a clear signal from our bodies that we need more rest, less stimulation, cleaner air, less noise, or other conditions that will allow us to return to homeostasis. We know that somewhere out there–5 miles or 500 miles–we could be in greener and freer places. In a bit of fresh air that might clear our minds and blow away the accumulation of stress and urban artifice. Not everyone is an outdoors person or longs to get away from the city. But the woods and plains and desert represent a kind of Eden that we could return to and find rejuvenation if we wanted.

The trouble is a lot of us don’t know how to be outside. Even if we choose to go there. The city clings onto us as we venture miles away, with smartphones acting as a tether and transporter no matter how far we travel. The forces of the city that have shaped urbanites often causes them to–at least initially–continue to act like they’re in the city when they’re in the midst of the outdoors. Anxious activity and reactivity, big speakers and constant out-loud commentary, and an expectation for comforting amenities of every kind. It overruns cabins, campsites, and hiking trails.

Unless you consciously try to let the outdoors act on you instead of you acting on it, there’s a good chance that most of the reason to get outside will be lost. You can even ruin the outdoors itself in the process. A littered plastic bottle in a random bush along a trail seems much more out of place than one on the sidewalk on Main St. We know in our bones that the outdoors is relatively pristine and elemental (without trash here and there), which should be a reminder that its benefits are available to us if we’re able to get out of our own way.

Even a short time in a natural setting can be incredibly invigorating and restorative. Better mood. Clearer vision. Easier breathing. Lower cortisol and overall stress. A more open and focused mind. A natural high (aerosols from forests of evergreens act as a mild sedative).

So let the outdoors tell you how to be there and do to you as it will. Do what you can to leave things as they are, rather than bringing in all kinds of gear and imposition. Let the outdoors make the sounds instead of your voice and streaming music, and let your ears tune into what’s there. Let your eyes relax and adjust so they can see things in ways other than what the pixelated light of a smartphone presents. And try to learn to be OK with the unexpected (while making sure you’re safe, obviously). An outdoor environment will present you with a whole variety of things you didn’t see coming, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not always in control and able to predict what happens next. Something near a campsite or just around the corner of the trail may uplift you and stick with you for a long time.

It can be awkward and a little unsettling to be outside if you’re not doing it often. And it’s natural to carry with us what we’re used to–needing time and reminders to break out of it. Knowing that it’s restorative and rewarding to be outdoors, we can all learn how to do it a little better for the benefit of ourselves and the places we visit.

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

The Common Good: What’s Good for People?

A couple months ago, I wrote a Part I for a series of posts about the common good. It’s here if you want to check it out.

The basic idea in Part I is that our barometer for whether or not society is working for its people is too simple. That barometer is a nebulous thing we refer to as the economy. Apparently, if the economy is doing well then all of us are doing well. If the economy isn’t great, politicians and journalists start to peek at more refined measurements like new jobs created, interest rates, unemployment, or wages.

Do any of those things really get to the heart of the common good? Do they get to the heart of your life and what’s good for you?

I don’t think so. There’s an underlying problem that we aren’t sure what’s good when we say common good. And whatever good is, we don’t seem to have it in common. The economy is a kind of lowest common denominator to be able to say something about whether life is going well or not. But it doesn’t tell us much about the complex lives of actual people.

Zoom in a bit closer, and what you’ll find is:

Some do put money, career, and purchasing power at the center. For them, the economy doing well probably does indicate life going well.

Others put most of the weight on adherence to a particular religion. Perhaps for them, if we were all devotees of their worldview then society would be doing well.

Still others are strong believers in maximizing individual freedoms and liberties. The fewer limitations that exist, the more we’ll find happiness in being ourselves–however we please to do so.

And some find their greatest sense of well-being in relationships–in strong bonds with family, friends, and romantic partners.

When we talk about the common good, there are many different ideas of what’s good–none of them held in common–so we have a gauge like the economy slide in. We should talk about that.

Despite our great differences as people, we actually are quite similar. Academics refer to a whole set of shared qualities called human universals. These are the things that are true of human beings because they’re human beings, no matter the place they’re born, the time they’re alive on the earth, their political party, what their favorite sports team is, how much money they make, who they want to have sex with, and everything else that makes us distinct from one another.

Behind the pursuit of money, career, religious perfection, civil liberties, and specific relationships, there are fundamental desires we all long to fulfill.

What are they?

Surprisingly, six basic needs make up the roots of all our other longings and pursuits. The list of six comes from a sociologist, Christian Smith, who’s studied human nature and society extensively. He compiled the work of several other academics into one universal grouping.

First, the endurance of our bodies: survival, security, and pleasure. What does that entail? Avoiding injury and illness. Feeling and being healthy and energetic. Enjoying the pleasures of our senses–music, sex, food, art, and the rest.

Second, knowledge of reality. It’s hard to function if the world doesn’t make some kind of sense to you. So we all have a map in our minds how what we believe and experience fit together. The mental map we establish allows us to navigate life better, even though none of us know or understand everything.

Third, identity coherence and affirmation. That’s a bit of academic-speak for what’s actually a straightforward concept. Each of us seeks to develop a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, and have it endure and strengthen through the course of our lives. Knowing who you are, and feeling comfortable with who you are.

Number four: exercising purposive agency. OK, clearly our friendly sociologist could have given us some more accessible terms. Exercising purposive agency just means you’re able to have at least some influence or power in the world when there are results or goals you want to achieve.

Fifth, moral affirmation. Each of us, on the whole, seeks to do what we think is right, admirable, or justifiable, based on a set of ethics that makes sense to us. We do what we can to avoid fault, blame, and guilt.

Finally, social belonging and love. None of us functions very well alone. We crave and require relationships of varying depth–to know others, and be known. To be welcomed, included, and cared for. In some relationships, to a depth and intimacy best referred to as love.

Together, these six needs form a kaleidoscope of basic humanity. To fulfill these needs is to live well, a state some have called flourishing.

Which allows us to say succinctly: A society that is successfully achieving the common good is a society in which every person, individually and as a community, is able to flourish.

If a society is set up in such a way that it systematically threatens someone’s safety, it’s not yet achieving the common good.

If it systematically marginalizes, discriminates, or oppresses certain people, it has not realized the common good to its fullest potential.

If a society denies or obscures aspects of reality–things like man-made climate change or racial injustice–it is not functioning for the common good.

There are a bajillion examples.

Point the lens of the six basic needs at anything in society, and the common good comes into focus.

Is survival, security, and pleasure preserved?

Does it enhance our knowledge of reality?

Does it promote self-identity and self-confidence?

Does it allow all people to have the influence or power they need?

Does it cultivate a sense of morality, justice, and admiration for what’s right?

Does it encourage strong relationships with family and friends, and the pursuit of love?

Make sense? Is that a way of understanding the common good we can all get behind? I hope so. There’s so much more depth, beauty, and potential than what the economy can fathom.

If you don’t think so, say why in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading. More to come in Part 3.

 

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