Thursday, April 13, 2017
100 REFLECTIONS: The Sages of Concord #7
THE NICK OF TIME
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
Henry David Thoreau Walden
This is neither brag nor confession. I was a “C” student. I was not very disciplined about doing my homework. When it came time to hand in our assignments, it was fairly likely that I would not have it. If we were assigned to read something I might have read it, I might not have. There was no guarantee. I’m not a betting man but, if I were, and you asked me to bet on whether I would have read a particular assigned reading, I would bet not.
Fortunately, in one case, I would have bet wrong. We had been assigned a very short reading from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It was a section from the chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” I was probably attracted to the title. I was struggling with what I wanted to do with my life. I was in my third year of High School. I was in my father’s kitchen. The TV may well have been on in the next room or, perhaps the radio. I was seated at the table. I opened my text book and read:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
As Quakers would say, this spoke to my condition.
I did not wish to live what was not life,…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, … to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, …or if it were sublime, to know it by experience…
To suck out all the marrow of life? To drive life into a corner? He had my attention.
… An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; …such are the clouds and storms and quicksands …that a man has to live, …by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
Simplicity? I didn’t know what he was talking about. And, I didn’t know why but it seemed to run counter to everything I had been taught. It seemed like such a radical idea, I couldn’t believe that they put it in a school textbook. Simplify? What about the messages I had gleaned from TV, radio, friends, family, school: “Decide what you were going to do for the rest of your life and sell your soul in order to accomplish it?” What about “Acquire, acquire, acquire?” What about “Work, work, work to make money, money, money so that you can buy, buy, buy?”
If Henry Thoreau had risen from the dead and walked into my father’s kitchen and grabbed me by the throat, I don’t know if I would have been as choked up as I was by these incredible words. No matter that I didn’t understand most of them. They seemed to be in another language but a language so beautiful and poignant that I had to learn it. I would learn it. I needed to learn it.
from Lonely Road