By Gene Wilburn
“Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let our affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand…Simplify, simplify!” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden
There are books we read for pleasure, like mysteries and spy stories; books we read for learning, such as On the Origin of Species; and books we read for philosophical or spiritual enlightenment. A very few books manage to combine all three, and they’re the ones that become lifelong companions. For me, one of these is Walden, by 19th-Century New England philosopher and writer, Henry David Thoreau.
I first read Walden in high school and, as it has for generations of readers, it struck a resonant chord in the very fabric of my being. Why was there so much striving for “things” and so much busyness in daily life –everyone trying to get ahead, scurrying around in an endless cycle of acquisition? As a skinny, gawky intellectually-oriented teenager I was already asking myself the same kinds of questions, and, here in Walden, was somebody asking them in language that was exhilarating and penetrating. For the first time in my life, I encountered an intellectual soul mate.
As an even younger boy I lived in the country, about a mile and a half from the nearest town, which in turn had population of 600. It was a quiet place to live. Being older than my half-siblings, I spent a fair bit of time alone. Often I’d tramp to the slough behind our farm where I would sit and watch the herons fishing for carp and frogs, or try to catch a glimpse of the squirrels that hid on the far side of the shagbark hickories as I approached. I’d listen to the insect and frog chorus, imbibe the sweet smell of water plants, and think about things. That’s about the closest I ever got to Thoreau’s cabin in the woods.
Then life happened. Education, job hunting, marriage, working, parenting, acquiring, paying bills, and sneaking in as much reading, photography, and guitar playing as possible. Hectic at times. At times, frenetic. Especially after the World Wide Web and portable computing devices transformed the planet in profoundly McLuhanistic ways. As a tech worker I did my part to build the information infrastructure that we now take as commonplace. And this, I admit, has led to anything but simplicity. The world has never seemed more complex.
But, if you stay the course and make it to the end of the employment cycle in relatively good health, you reach a new beginning: retirement. Not, of course, that retirement is a piece of cake, or always pleasant, but it presents new possibilities, one of which is the opportunity to regain some simplicity.
For most of us retirees, this starts with downsizing and decluttering. As George Carlin pointed out, we acquire a lot of “stuff” in a lifetime, and you realize you need much less of this “stuff” than you previously did. Do I still need my Canadian Tire ice skates? I’m no longer in a folk-music trio and, face it, I never was a great guitarist anyway so why did I have so many nice guitars? And my Nikon gear, as lovely as it can be, but bulky and heavy to carry around. And did I really need two completely different camera systems with accompanying lenses? Unless you’re a collector or a pro (or advanced amateur), this no longer makes sense so you sell some of it, give a lot of it away, and jettison the bits nobody wants anymore.
But while decluttering is good, and downsizing may be appropriate, neither is the ultimate goal. What Thoreau was getting at in his transcendental meditations was quieting life enough to be able to embrace the spirit. Not meaning spirit in a religious way, though that’s fine too if that’s your inclination, but especially to contemplate nature and your place in it. And part of that spirit is the human spirit, which includes the thoughts and meditations of generations of persons on the planet as passed down to us through the magic of the written word.
Retirement is the ideal time to meditate on and contemplate life, but there’s no reason to try to do this entirely on your own when you can, as Newton said, “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and gaze across a broad vista of astonishing thoughts and knowledge. It’s out there: the writings of the scientists, the mystics, the poets, the historians, the story tellers, the philosophers spanning the present all the way back to the pre-Socratic Greeks. And it’s all easily accessible.
The gift of retirement is the gift of time – time to devote to studies and projects and, above all, growth. You do this to keep your mind supple, to avoid the “hardening of the categories” that lock you into fixed thoughts and opinions. It’s a time to expand the spirit, not shrink it through the lazy thinking of “received opinions.” From what can be gleaned of medical studies, it’s better for your aging brain health as well. Learning new things, languages, ideas, crafts – things that nourish your spirit and keep your brain active – creates new neural pathways in the brain and helps, apparently, to stave off, or at least delay, dementia.
Life will never again be as simple as it was in Thoreau’s time and few of us can retire to the back woods, so it’s upon each of us to create a “Walden of the mind” by simplifying what we can. Complexities will still remain. You still need to somehow remember all your computer passwords. Thus I leave the final word to Professor Einstein.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” ~ Albert Einstein