at year's end
I have never really been one to make new year's resolutions. I just don't see the point of reflecting any more or less on a specific day of the year. "Continuous improvement" (apologies for using management-speak) makes much more sense to me - you should be willing to reflect at any time about any aspect of your life that is not working and take the necessary steps to change it, not wait to the 1st of January to write a list of "resolutions". If you did not have the will to follow-through at any other time of the year, why would the first day of a new year be any different?
I did a lot more reflection in the year past than my average kind of year - challenging near death experiences have a way of focussing your attention. Many of the fruits of that reflection are covered in blog posts of the last few months so I won't repeat them here. I managed to write most of those reflections without once quoting Thoreau though his words haunted me for much of this period and I will complete my last blog of the year with a quote and some observations of the man's most profound idea:
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
I draw heavily below on a Thoreau reader, Rockford E. Toews, of Back Creek Books in Annapolis, Maryland as his discussion of Thoreau's idea is a perfect reminder that my year past served as an important catalyst for some life "recalibration".
Thoreau wanted to get the most from his life by determining what was really important, and he did that by removing himself somewhat from the normal life of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840's. He wanted to live his life, rather than find out too late that it had, in fact, lived him. One side of this was economic: he reduced his material needs by living simply, so that he would not have to spend much time supporting a lifestyle that he did not need or care about. The other side was spiritual, not unlike the spiritual retreats of eastern and western religions.
And it worked. Thoreau liked it so much that he lived in his cabin for more than two years, and came back with a great story. He worked on this story for several years after leaving the Pond, until it became the Walden story we know today.
Rather than purposefully living, the vast majority of people's lives are little more than a series of reactions to events and forces outside themselves. That's not truly living. That's just survival. Yet most people willingly engage in simple survival today in the belief that they will get their chance at actual living tomorrow. If they can earn enough money now surely they will be able to retire one day and enjoy life. Those are long odds, however. Assuming you live long enough to try it, will you know how to enjoy life? Or be in good health?
We get very little help in finding our vocation. Our culture places the most stress on the monetary aspect of getting a living. To that end, our education system increasingly intends only to turn out workers with this or that set of specialized, salable skills. We then agree to spend the bulk of our lives trading these skills for money. If our greatest reward is the money, skilled as we may be we are still just spit-turning dogs. And that's the polite metaphor.
To live a purposeful life, it is such a simple idea. For some colour and movement, I'll add that equanimity is the foundation of Buddhism - steadfastness, intensity, curiosity. Ask questions, and learn. We may never really understand the meaning of life and it does not matter if we do not. The truly important thing is that we live it.