On the markers of distance travelled

There’s a phenomenon when you take a new journey whereby the journey out seems to take forever compared to the homeward leg. It seems to be true however you’re travelling, so long as the route home is the same as the route out. I remember as a kid being surprised how quickly we seemed to get home after a day trip out somewhere new. 

I recently scouted a route that turned out to be exactly half marathon distance; the first time I ran it was mostly way-finding as I was having to pay attention to the landmarks along my route and occasionally checking Google maps. The second time I felt like I was making much quicker progress; whilst I completed it a few minutes quicker, I was also ticking off the turns and landmarks as I went. The third time, I didn’t have to think, I could just power around the course. 

It’s a strange psychological affect that when you don’t know exactly where you’re going, everything looks new and you’re never quite sure how close you are to getting there*; when you know the route, however vaguely, the landmarks break the journey up and it appears to pass by more quickly. 

Why does this come to mind? Well, I was speaking at an RSA ‘year in review’ event in December and was asked to reflect on one core learning from 2020. Hard to pick one, of course. I decided to share the idea of transitions and the focus for me of living in that liminal space between states. There is a lot to unpack about the nature of transitions, of gains and losses, of uncertainty and directions, guiding principles and visions. But in particular, this has forced me to reconcile the idea of 2020 as a year in which these traditional markers of time and distance have not been present.

We can’t look back and see a year punctuated with family gatherings, holidays and trips, meet-ups with friends, social events and visits, and the like. We have a year in which our physical worlds have shrunk and the vital transitions between states, between activities, between seasons, punctuating the flow of time, have been absent. In the same way that we moved from meeting to meeting without leaving our screen, our room, our seat, without physically moving or crossing a threshold – a corridor, a doorway – into a new space, we have transitioned from month to month without the normal markers of change. 

We’ve missed the things that distinguish a Saturday from a Friday; an evening from the daytime, a week off from a week at work; a work meeting from a family meet-up. They’ve all used the same spaces and the same medium/tech. Little has changed. We’ve embodied them all in the same ways. In the same space, staring at a small screen. We’ve lost, in effect, our physical, social and environmental context. It’s this context which helps us to fix our experiences in our memories. Not just a trip but the sights, smells, sounds of the place we’re visiting. Not just work but the place we work, the rooms, the people, the sounds. 

Those portals between our personal worlds are becoming more salient than ever for me. The tube is to work as the door is to a meeting as the queue is to the club as the plane is to the holiday or the car is to the family reunion. They are all signs that you are leaving one space, one world behind and transitioning into a new one; yet in doing so you are in neither. You’re in that liminal space. It’s a space to be valued, to be relished. These spaces are vital markers, physically, psychologically and emotionally. They help us move mental states as well as physical ones. 

This year they’ve been sadly missing. What toll will their absence take on us? Will we look back at 2020 as a slow year, one that seemed to drag on forever, because of such lack of markers? To be honest, at the moment it has felt to me like 2020 scurried past…  I am left wondering what can I do – what can we all do – in early 2021 to mark these transitions more mindfully. Because to all intents and purposes they will continue to be absent in our lives for much of 2021. 

*at least, in a world without SatNav

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