Oftentimes, I’ll convince myself that I need a tube of toothpaste just to walk to Duane Reade. I offer sick friends soup from Pret partially so I can take a stroll down Broadway and get a breath of fresh air. I’ve convinced myself that Barnard Fitness Center is superior to Dodge simply because the walk is longer.
It feels silly that I need utilitarian reasons to do nothing, to bask in that empty time between departing from a location and arriving at a new one in order to perform a productive task. In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf expressed it best: “No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner.”
This desire for constant productivity is addictive and ultimately toxic. New Yorkers walk quickly because there’s no time to waste. Students often complain that they find no time to escape campus. Our lives often become so busy that we struggle to make the time to step back from the stress and truly get to know each other. Even so, we always find time to run an errand. Why can’t we make time for wandering the same way we do for errands?
This logic extends past our individual actions. Whenever we seek friendships, we do so over study dates or meals. These tasks are inherently productive: we came to college to study, and eating is a basic human requirement. Yet it is strange to think that forging friendships, an act which should be so focused on getting to know another person, needs to be something with which we multitask. Why can’t we ask a friend to simply sit and talk? Why can’t we just walk?
Sometimes, I fall into this dangerous pattern of Butler dates and John Jay brunches while trying to strengthen friendships. I feel the triteness start to seep in when “what’s up” becomes more of a greeting than a question. I struggle to venture past talk of potential majors and extracurricular interests. With the same couple meeting places for each social interaction, it’s no wonder that we have these same conversations. We don’t realize how much of an effect our setting has on our minds until we break out of the usual.
People like brunching because it’s comfortable. You don’t come on too strong. The course of the meal sets a time limit to the conversation, so there’s no awkward pause or break that ends the interaction. But we need to be risk-takers in order to really get to know someone. That means sometimes being uncomfortable and vulnerable, venturing past the Ferris action station into the streets of New York City.
I can’t help but remember the joy of exploring campus with my best friend in high school. She’d text me, “Wanna go on a walk?” Ten minutes later, we’d be treading pathways, rolling down hills, and finding the best vantage point from which we could see the entire horizon upside-down. Everything was light and genuine. We never ran out of conversation because the world was our talking point, and I always knew more about her after each adventure.
The first time I asked a friend at Columbia to go on a walk, I used it as an excuse to “de-stress before the Lit Hum final.” I am inherently hypocritical for turning my favorite pastime into a productive method of meditation and clearing our minds. Nevertheless, she agreed to walk with me, so we strolled campus like tourists and tiptoed at the edges of overpasses, holding onto the railings and gawking at the city’s beauty. I remember how she lit up at the sight of fresh snow and attempted to eat it. It was such a small detail about her, but it was something I never would have discovered by merely brunching with her.
In my eyes, Columbia has two main problems: stress culture and the inability of people to forge intimate connections. By taking the time to meet with someone in an unproductive context, you battle both simultaneously.
Refusing to walk quickly isn’t a waste of time; it’s a way to notice the fresh spread of novels at Book Culture or note the unique fashion senses of each passerby. Refusing to simply get coffee isn’t strange; it’s a way to break the cycle of trite relationships with common icebreakers. Asking someone to take a walk isn’t a waste of time; it’s a method of understanding how someone acquaints themselves with new places and what details they care to notice as they stroll.
I appreciate Virginia Woolf’s confession that she feels passionate towards a lead pencil the same way I do towards a tube of toothpaste, but I wish she had taken it one step further. I wish she had moved past needing an excuse to walk across London and simply strolled for the sake of strolling. That’s the liberation from toxic productivity we all need.
The author is a first-year at Columbia College and an associate editorial page editor. She enjoys window shopping and basically anything free. If you ask to go on a walk with her, she won’t take it the wrong way.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.