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Finding the high way

  • 26 July 2017


In our society ethical questions such as those to do with marriage, crime and punishment, the beginnings and endings of life and freedom of speech are often 'highway' issues. Protagonists establish in advance the right way to go, keep their foot down and their eyes on the road without noticing the terrain the highway traverses. Road signs indicating another destinations or alternative routes are ignored and towns by-passed. Certainty is gained; understanding of country is sacrificed. 

Ethical reflection can also be done by taking the tourist route, preferably by bicycle. The signpost promises leisurely travel. In practice the route is demanding. The road plunges off the ridge, down creek valleys and up steep hills. Although it preserves cyclists from speeding cars it puts them at risk from inattentive drivers looking at the scenery. But drivers hurrying on business drivers inattentive to the road and to cyclists. But through calves, eyes and ears the country and the ways people live there do leave a fuller understanding both of land and of what it means to live there.

It is the difference between a thick and a thin experience. One looks for defined instructions, sharp boundaries between safe and risky and between the direct and the circuitous, quickness and firmness of judgment and a clear route to follow that cuts through possibility. It is about ending possibility in the interests of certainty.

The other is interested in exploration, in human complexity, in the way in which highways came to be where they are, the experience of exploring other paths and of other lives, in comparing routes. It is about conversation that explores possibility.  

The Attachment, a selection of letters and email messages between writer, actress and adventurer Ailsa Piper with Sydney priest Tony Doherty is a fine advertisement for the tourist route. Its beginnings lay in Piper’s reading of a medieval practice in which pilgrims agreed to bear others’ sins on their walk, so freeing the sinners from their burden.

Piper, who has no church allegiance, was fascinated by the idea. She issued a public invitation to people to share with her burdens that she could bear them while walking on the Camino. She was astonished by the response, and later wrote a book about the project. Doherty, a Catholic priest, read it, found it illuminated his own pastoral experience, and dropped Piper an appreciative note.   A regular exchange of emails followed, and developed into a friendship