Simplify, Simplify

2012-08-10

In the chapter of Walden entitled Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, Thoreau writes:

Our life is frittered away by detail. 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; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, 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.

I imagine that Thoreau, too, has been taken to task for urging us twice to simplify and calling us three times to simplicity, when once might well have been enough. Yet it struck me today that one cannot simplify once and be done with it. True simplicity requires continued practice, and a regular cleaning of one's mental house.

Earlier in the essay, Thoreau said:

Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of King Tchingthang to this effect: "Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again."

And, a bit farther on:

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air — to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light. That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way. After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his Genius tries again what noble life it can make.

Thoreau at Walden tried to live deliberately -- "to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour". And for that, continual practice is needed, a continual effort to "learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake". By all means simplify, "front only the essential facts of life", cut out the distractions, focus on the few things that really matter. Yet know, too, that inevitably you will lose that focus, and start to find that "our life is frittered away by detail" without continual attention to simplicity; and so one must recall oneself to the essentials, to reawaken, to refocus, to simplify once and then simplify again and again.

Or so I hear Thoreau saying to me as we walk side by side along the path of life.


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