Have you ever had that experience of always assuming you knew what a word meant, only to discover that it actually bears quite a different meaning?
I had one of those moments with the word “saunter.” I had encountered it often in books, usually with the same phraseology: “He sauntered in.” To me, in context, it always felt synonymous with “strutted,” and I never bothered to look the word up.
But one day I was on vacation, a guest at the home of friends, reading one of those life-coaching plaques in their home (I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess which room of the house it was in). The plaque gave dozens of tidbits of advice for joyful living.
One of those sage counsels was “Saunter aimlessly.” It didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the phrases on the plaque. “Strut aimlessly”?? I suddenly found myself hearing the admonition of Inigo Montoya:
“You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means…”
So I got out my dictionary. Actually, let’s be honest – I got out my smartphone, which is ironic because the smartphone is quite possibly one of the greatest disrupters of sauntering in all of human existence. But it gets the job done as a dictionary. The scales fell from my eyes as I read the following:
1. walk in a slow, relaxed manner, without hurry or effort.
It was so much more than an “aha!” moment. It was one of those divine taps on the shoulder. Perhaps I had misunderstood this vocabulary word all my life because I am not so skilled at sauntering.
Well actually, that’s not entirely true. Deep down, my heart LOVES to saunter. Have you seen those Family Circus installments that trace little Billy’s meanderings with a dotted line? I definitely have a little child inside that absolutely delights in sautnering – exploring the nooks and crannies of God’s creation in a spirit of curiosity, awe, and adventure. But many other parts of me rise up to squelch that childlike longing.
My workaholic and perfectionistic tendencies don’t tend to leave space for little Derek to saunter. I experience restless urges within me – an urge to “get caught up,” an urge to be constantly productive, and an urge to meet the impossible expectations of others. My inner critic warns me that there is no time for such childish pursuits. If I stop to smell the roses, an inner alarm goes off, warning me to move on to the next thing or raising my internal level of guilt about being selfish or lazy.
I apparently did not know the meaning of the word “saunter” during my four years living in Italy, but it was often right there in front of me. I recall feeling frequently annoyed at the locals, stuck behind them as they strolled aimlessly down the sidewalk – on those few Roman streets that are actually wide enough to have sidewalks. Somehow one Italian could effectively block an eight-foot-wide space, always walking down the middle, often smoking a cigarette, and veering randomly to the left or the right as they sauntered along without a care in the world. Italians are not exactly known for efficiency or industriousness, especially the further south one goes. There I was, descended from neurotic Northern Europeans – and even among my own people bearing a legendary reputation for productivity and overachieving. Needless to say, I did not blend in, nor did I try to. I found ways to beat the system and accomplish the tasks I felt driven to do – but not without resentment and frustration. I could have learned some lessons from those Italians.
In truth, we cannot live as humans without sauntering sometimes. Our ultimate purpose in life is to abide with the Lord forever. Each one of us carries deep within us a yearning for rest. If we do not honor that yearning, it will find ways to express itself – often in fruitless fantasies or mindless escapes that do not actually refresh us.
Desiring our happiness and wellbeing, God commands us to engage in Sabbath rest. He rests on the seventh day and invites us to participate in his rest. Easier said than done!
I remember the summer of 1995, at the end of my freshman year of college. I felt a conviction that, as a student, my labor was academic – which means observing Sunday as a day of rest from my studies. I made the decision not to do homework on the Lord’s Day. I thought it would be incredibly hard to “get my work done” without utilizing Sunday. I was wrong there. Those adjustments proved easy to make and helped me be more intentional about my time the rest of the week. There was no challenge academically. Rather, what surprised me was how exceedingly difficult it proved to spend the newly found time on Sunday in real rest and rejuvenation. I found my heart restless as it tried to indulge in various kinds of entertainment or pleasure. My prayer felt scattered and distracted. It surprised me that rest could be so hard!
I remember a similar restlessness on many of my retreats over the years – worrying about “doing it right.” I eventually learned that the Lord would bless me regardless, and now I cherish my retreat days each year. They are one of the rare times in the year that I seem to feel greater freedom to saunter. At so many other times, there is something inside of me that seeks to sabotage authentic rest. It doesn’t feel safe to be blessed and to receive. There is a vulnerability in it that is so wonderful and so terrifying at the same time.
I think “sauntering” can be even harder for me, because sauntering still includes a certain sense of movement and purposefulness, albeit in a more carefree manner. I tend to set myself up with impossible tasks and then always feel in a hurry, always under stress. I walk fast. I drive fast. I plow through tasks. I am disciplined and driven. In that setup, there is little permission to move at a slower pace, to welcome interruptions as opportunities to receive, to wonder at and delight in the amazing beauty that surrounds me.
These moments of sauntering, puttering, meandering – whatever the right term is – are so essential for me to feel safe, to be open and receptive, to notice and to care, to be in awe and to wonder, to learn, to grow, to be generous, to appreciate, to be grateful, to affirm and encourage others, and to praise God. I am so much less human if I do not allow space for sauntering in my life.
Thankfully beauty often breaks through in spite of my defenses. It sneaks in the back door and catches me by surprise. At those moments I have a choice to make. Will I rush on to the next thing and miss an opportunity to abide with the one who loves me so much? Or will I be kind to myself, allowing myself to take in the goodness and beauty, to savor it, to delight in it, and to praise the God who gives such good gifts?
Jesus, teach me to “saunter aimlessly” and to learn to be at peace when I do so.