The Power of Being Outside
I spend a lot of time in my head. I always have. Born 10 years after my closest brother, I was often by myself as a kid and that was no doubt the beginning of my daydreaming, fretting, fantasizing, and perseverating. Being an introvert didn’t help. I have spent countless hours in my life processing the noisy, complex social scenes around me and trying to figure out where I fit. But whatever the source of my internal machinations, it turns out to be exhausting and unproductive to spend that much time and energy in thought—which, let’s face it, is mostly just stuff I make up.
This summer, when I was lucky enough to spend a month in France, I was outside a lot. In Paris, we walked for hours, just taking in the grandeur of the 19th-century architecture, the brightly colored doors, and the early June light reflected on the river. Even if we weren’t headed someplace in particular, we walked in the parks, on the Promenade Plantée, and down narrow streets lined with tiny stores and cafés. It was still cool in Paris when we arrived in late May, and we even needed umbrellas when we walked down our street to dinner one night. When we were indoors, we kept the windows wide open, to see the clouds, to hear the people walking across the plaza below us, and to feel the cool, summer air.
When we’re older, we get the great gift of knowing that there is no figuring things out. It’s just being in it, going through it, and being glad to be in the next new place.
It didn’t take long for me to remember that being outside is like an elixir for me. I don’t even need to be hiking or camping. Just walking or sitting outdoors is enough to ground me, to help me be in the moment and to generally feel better. It’s good practice, even, for staying present when I’m indoors—just remembering the power of every sensory experience can get me out of my head and into real life in an instant. When we traveled to southwest France after Paris, we stayed in a small village on the Dordogne River. I sat for hours in a white wrought iron chair watching the river pass and listening to the birds in the trees. I knew the feeling was something I wanted to bring home with me, like a precious souvenir discovered in an out-of-the-way shop.
I find my regular at-home routines don’t include as much time outside as I probably really need. I run in the mornings and walk the dogs afterwards, but the rest of the day is often spent indoors, at the computer or reading or doing chores. It’s almost like I’m too lazy sometimes to break the habit and just get myself out there—even to sit in my backyard or take a quick bike ride. I remember people I used to work with who would take themselves out for a walk on campus every couple of hours—and I know now how smart they were.
In my journey to figure out my next iteration, being outside needs to be a big part of it, so I'm working on making it a regular habit. When I am stewing over something in my head, I’m practicing changing the behavior and moving myself outside. I know there are things to see that I’ve ignored before, and I know that simply altering my state of mind can move me back into my lane. Just like that, I’m in my own life, not worrying about what someone else might do in theirs.
So much of what I’m learning at this end of life would have been useful when I was younger, but I know I wouldn’t have appreciated it then. I would have said I was too busy to stop and go outside or to take a walk or sit in the sun for a moment. It’s sad that we’re so engaged with all of these heady things when we’re young and we think we can figure it all out. When we’re older, we get the great gift of knowing that there is no figuring things out. It’s just being in it, going through it, and being glad to be in the next new place. Being outside slows all of that down for me because it’s intentional, and it feels like righting myself in a storm of my own making.