Another year comes to a close and Christmas is upon us once again. It must have been six weeks ago that I requested a book from the library and was informed that I was 13th on the wait list. I’d forgotten about the order but a few days ago was notified that it was ready for pickup. As Josée was out for supper tonight, I fetched it and spent a quiet few hours reading by the woodstove. Last read by me about fifteen years ago, the book, Walden, a classic by Henry David Thoreau, is especially pertinent at this time of the year. In my mind, the essence of this work can be distilled into two basic questions: How much is enough? and How do I know what I want?
Society’s answer to the first question is simple and direct: nothing. Nothing seems to be enough; we always need a bigger house, the latest gadgets, a new wardrobe. It isn’t enough to keep up with the Joneses, we have to be ahead of them, even if we don’t really know what we are chasing. Thoreau spent about two years subsistence living at his cabin on Walden Pond. He wrote on a variety of topics from financial and economic musings to advice on gardening and home-making to brief comments on the political scene in mid-19th century New England. An over-arching theme, however, is that humans are built to be most satisfied when living simple, meaningful lives. In one of the Walden commentaries I read, the editor hearkens back to a Rubbermaid commercial:
“From the day I was born,” a lady is saying, “I collected so much stuff.” [The picture shows a sad family hemmed in by their possessions.] “So we stowed our stuff in stuff from Rubbermaid.” [Now the house is bare, save for big plastic boxes full of gear.] “Then we were so unstuffed – Hey! We need more stuff.” [Family charges happily out the door, waving hands in air.]
Consume, buy, obtain, acquire – these are the watchwords of life in the 21st century, whether we are cognizant of our worship at the Throne of the Economy or not. Society says we need more and for many of us, myself included, we live our lives on the treadmill of consumerism. Yet we never feel satisfied. As Christmas approaches, the question I am asking myself is not “what do I want for Christmas?” but rather “how much more do I need?”.
So on to question two – How do I know what I want? It appears as though a common theme runs through the words of history’s great holy people from Jesus to Gandhi, Buddha to Mother Theresa to St. Francis – simplicity is good for the soul and materials don’t satisfy our wants. So how do we know what we want? Thoreau suggests inward contemplation – spending time with yourself. I can’t remember the last time I did that – hello, Self, how are you? Thoreau comments on being able to disconnect from the Big Hum, a term he used for the busy nature of life. If he thought it was busy 160 years ago, what would he think now? But imagine, if you will, disconnecting for a few hours from the Big Hum – no email, no phones, no Facebook, no blogs (gulp!), no driving around town, no Starbucks, no shopping malls, no radios or TVs, no life scheduled to the Nth degree. Instead, just a couple hours sitting at the beach, not reading or talking, not texting or walking – just being. Alone with your thoughts and the lap of the waves and cry of the gulls. How long could we sit there before we got bored, before we needed to do something, contact someone or get on the move?
A prime example of modern life can be seen right here, in this post. If I was to write 2500 words on Walden, Thoreau and the simple life, no one would read it – too long, I can’t get into it, I don’t have time. Now to be fair, this might be because my writing is terrible or perhaps there is no one at the other end of this blog to read it! But you get my drift – we’re all too busy, too organized, too immediate. I remember as a kid having hours and hours when my friends and I just played, wandering the back yard or the woods or riding bikes. Now many kids need a PDA or cell phone just to keep on top of all the things they need to do – they have busy lives.
I look at my life and wonder why don’t I make more time to be simple, to stop and smell the roses as the old cliché goes. Am I just too busy? Too many things going on? Well, to be honest, while I can say that in truth it is an excuse. I make choices and if I decide to ‘be busy’ instead of going for a quiet stroll along the beach – well, who’s to blame?
Anyway, enough of my rant. It was just refreshing to re-read Walden, to take away some new perspectives and to re-dedicate myself to my journey toward a simpler life. It was pertinent in the mid-19th century but I believe the message of Walden is even more relevant today as we are loosing our connection to ourselves, rooted in a simpler life. Now I just have to get Josée to add it to her book club list.
Merry Christmas and, remember, Jesus is the reason for the season!!