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In the Middle Ages, Catholicism had the odd-sounding idea that every ailment of the mind or body could be cured by going off on a long journey to touch a part of the body of a long-dead saint. The church had to hand a dictionary of pilgrimage destinations, which in every case matched problems with solutions. Believers with a painful molar were advised to travel to Rome to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, where they would touch the arm bones of St.

Apollonia, the patron saint of teeth or, if such a trip were awkward, they might go and find pieces of her jaw in the Jesuit church at Antwerp, some of her hair at St. Unhappily-married women were directed to travel to Umbria to touch the shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, patron saint of marital problems and lost causes. Soldiers looking to embolden themselves before a battle could commune with the bones of Sainte Foy in a gold-plated reliquary in the abbey-church in Conques in south western France — while people who worried excessively about lightning could gain relief by travelling to the Jesuit Church in Bad Muenstereifel in Germany and laying hands on the relics of Saint Donatus, believed to offer help against fires and explosions of all kinds.

There are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, vastness, climate, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy or sheer difference from our homelands can exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us. These sites, valuable rather than holy, help us to recover perspective, reorder our ambitions, quell our paranoias and remind us of the interest and obliging unexpectedness of life. Though we might agree with this at a general level, we still lack a tradition of approaching travel from a properly therapeutic perspective and so of analysing landscapes according to their inner benefits.

We lack atlases of destinations with which to treat ourselves. There are as yet no psychotherapeutic travel agencies, no experts in both neurotic disorders and tourism, in the psyche and in the nature trails, museums, hot springs and bird sanctuaries of six continents. In part, this requires us to look at the globe in a new way. Every destination we might alight upon contains within it qualities, virtues one might say, that could conceivably support some move or other on an inner journey.

There are places that could help with shyness and others with anxiety. Some places might be good at reducing egoism and others might be good for helping us think more clearly about our careers. It would be the call-to-arms to become a different person; a secular pilgrimage properly anchored around a stage of character development. Travel should not be allowed to escape the underlying seriousness of the area of life with which it deals.


We should aim for locations in the outer world that can push us towards where we need to go within. We live in societies in which it is hard to count as a good and intelligent adult without seeming to take a deep and fairly constant interest in politics.

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We have to hand, at minimal cost, a stream of reliable and penetrating bulletins about the latest events in parliament, law courts, bureaucracies, battlefields and markets. Or not as much as we should.

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We may follow the constant political fights closely enough. We suppose perhaps a touch guiltily that, for whatever reason, the political gene has passed us by.

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This may be an extremely unfair conclusion. But this captures only a very small part of what truly constitutes the political, properly understood. Of course, supporters of a given party or economic doctrine will count as political under this title they want to win or to push forward tax changes for the good of others, though this motive can get lost in the noise , but there are plenty of other ways in which one may be intimately involved in the task of promoting the happiness of strangers — and therefore immersed in politics as the field should be properly understood.

At a sombre moment in the Peloponnesian war, the ancient Athenian statesman Pericles made a speech known as the Funeral Oration in which he attempted to define what made Athenian society so admirable and so worth fighting and dying for. He covered territory that might sound unfamiliar today. He praised his fellow citizens for their attitudes to beauty, for the way they approached exercise, for the manner in which they entertained each other at home, for their sensitivity to their natural surroundings and for the open, polite manner they had in public places.

With a more Periclean definition of politics in mind, we can see that it could be possible to count as a political person while principally interested in woodland flowers, psychotherapy, street lamp design, self-knowledge, correct punctuation, politeness, dental hygiene, self-understanding, hiking, humour, architecture, meditation, birdsong, cycle helmets, local history and a good many topic besides. We should not let politics be kidnapped by people with an impoverished sense of what the collective good might be.

Part of the reason why being interested in politics has traditionally had high prestige is that it seems a selfless act, a noble prioritising of communal over personal interests.

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But this too may be a rather unhelpful starting point, because it privileges a sacrificial impulse which few of us reliably experience. In reality, being political need have nothing to do with self-renunciation.

Living in our own minds, we have a constant experience of impotence and failure. Much the same may hold true of our relationships with those close to us. We know how often our initiatives go nowhere, our plans are rebuffed, our intentions ground down. It is the best possible kind of selfishness. Acting politically, we can bring our most competent, purposeful selves to bear on a relatively limited set of issues in the lives of strangers — and therefore have a chance of succeeding.

We have the joy of trying to change the world, rather than wrestling always with the far thornier task of wondering how to be happy. We are back from work unusually late. One of the most consoling aspects of natural phenomena — it might be a dog, a sheep, a tree or a valley — is that their meanings have nothing whatsoever to do with our own perilous and tortured priorities.

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They are redemptively unconcerned with everything we are and want. They implicitly mock our self-importance and absorption and so return us to a fairer, more modest sense of our role on the planet. One of its companions approaches and sits next to him, wool to wool, and for a second, they exchange what appears to be a knowing, mildly amused glance.

Beyond the sheep are a couple of oak trees. They are of especially noble bearing, they gather their lower branches tightly under themselves while their upper branches grow in small orderly steps, producing a rich green foliage in an almost perfect circle. The same things would have been going on when Napoleon was leading his armies across Europe or when the first nomads made their way toward the Appalachian hills. Our encounter with nature calms us because none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance to it. Everything that happens to us, or that we do, is of no consequence whatever from the point of view of the dog, the sheep, the trees, the clouds or the stars; they are deeply important representatives of an entirely different perspective within which our own concerns are mercifully irrelevant.

For long stretches of our lives, our bodies steadfastly refuse to obey our commands. As babies, the spoon drops straight out of our hand. But in the middle years, we can — in specific contexts — achieve an awe-inspiring degree of mastery over our physical selves. In relation to some closely-regulated challenges, we can train our bodies to follow our will entirely. Sport embodies a grand metaphysical struggle of the human spirit against the unruly and entropic forces of the material world.

It is the most sophisticated and impressive form of revenge against the humiliations of having a body. All sports, however outwardly different, have as their goal the masterful subjugation of the body to the will. The discobolus — or discus thrower — fashioned by the Greek sculptor Myron in the fifth century BC shows a man in total command of his body: his thighs, shoulders, turn of the neck, ankles and fingers are all harmonised in the service of getting the discus as far as possible to the other end of a field. We see a similar underlying idea of perfect coordination and control in all athletic poses: the runner at the starting blocks, the swimmer in mid-stroke or the golfer at the end of a swing.

In an act of scarcely believable precision, on a golf course, a tiny white ball that might have gone pretty much anywhere — into the pond, onto the trees, towards a salesman in the clubhouse — can be made to fly four hundred yards through the air to come cleanly to rest inside a small, barely visible hole on a highly manicured lawn on the opposite side of a hill. Being a spectator of sport also offers us correctives to some of the entrenched, powerful problems of our lives.

For example, it compresses action so as to give us a result within a timeframe in tune with our native impatience and need for resolutions. So often, beyond sport, events move in irritatingly diffuse, chaotic and multiple ways. We lose the thread — and therefore the capacity to care. A project may come right in three years time. There are 2, people on our team in five time zones. But sport speeds up and edits drama: the results appear precisely on schedule: after 10 seconds in the hundred meters, after 90 minutes in a game of football.

Sport also gives us a corrective to the normal pressure to be emotionally guarded, empathetic and intelligently ambivalent. But at least briefly, around sport, we can be wholly and wildly partisan. We can innocently long to eradicate the enemy. We have — at last — found something pure, good and mercifully simple to believe in. There is no end to conflict and divergent convictions. We love some very unlikely strangers.

In our excitement, differences in status are erased. Our job description always a painfully skewed reflection of who we really are can be forgotten.

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Your career, your appearance, your spending power, your house, your car, perhaps your kids and your partner too. Then suddenly — around a big sporting event — you may find you care with extraordinary intensity about the fate of a group of your muscular country folk on a pitch or track far away, jumping remarkably high or passing a ball between one another with maniacal dexterity.

It takes the pressure off us. It lightens the oppressive responsibility we otherwise feel to ensure that our own lives are stellar. We can find greatness in a mighty cause. We can be proud to belong in a very minor way to an inspiring collective enterprise. Through sport, we have the chance to transcend the clumsier, more mean-spirited, tentative and segregated aspects of our lives. There are some of us who regularly feel a powerful need to go away and think rather more than is typically allowed or taken to be normal.

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This business of thinking can seem to us like one of the most meaningful things we ever do. After too long in company, we crave the word may not be too strong to be alone with our own minds. Raw experience proves too overwhelming, dense, messy, confused or exciting — and, on a regular basis, we long to sort through it. We stay up late, ruminate in the bath, wake up early, write a book, go for a walk — and feel perceptibly lightened and refreshed by the process of mastering emotions and the alchemy of converting feelings into ideas. The more we leave the sadness unattended, the more it starts to colour everything we are involved with. Our experiences become tasteless, a mute fog descends over consciousness.

Or else we feel confusedly anxious. Our thoughts refuse to settle.