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by William H. Benson

July 12, 2012


     William Falk, the editor at The Week, described his busy life one day last week. “I am in the 15th hour of a day that began at 6 a.m. with some work at home, a 9 a.m. trip to the doctor, more work on my laptop in the waiting room, some text updates to my wife Karla, a work-filled commute, a full day of pedal-to-the metal cranking on deadline, a commute back home, a rushed dinner with my daughter, and a few more hours on the laptop, pecking out this editor’s letter.”

     Such a schedule sounds relentless, and it is, but it is not a-typical, not uncommon. Many American people push themselves to work that number of hours daily for five, six, or even seven days a week.

     Tim Kreider, a writer for The New York Times, wrote a column last week that he entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” In it he argued that people’s “busyness is purely self-imposed. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” He may be right.

     Kreider works only four or five hours most mornings, rides his bike in the afternoons, and reads books or watches movies evenings. He says, “I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know.”

     Henry David Thoreau, that eccentric resident of Concord, Massachusetts in the middle of the eighteenth century, argued that even four or five hours of work every day is too much. He turned the whole scheme of work and living upside down, arguing that a person should only work one day a week and live the other six, or work two weeks a year and vacation the other fifty. Few people in today’s modern society would dare follow his prescription for living, and yet he did.

     On July 4, 1845, his Independence Day, he moved into a rustic cabin that he had built near Walden Pond, and eight days later, on July 12, he marked his birthday, turning twenty-eight. Near his cabin he planted a garden, and so he fed himself. For the next two years, until September 6, 1847, he lived at Walden Pond, proving two propositions: first, that a person can live with a minimum of things, and second that a person can live with a minimum of labor. There, he wrote his book, Walden.

     In it, he asked pertinent questions, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life.” “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?” He challenged and rejected society’s basic premises. He would not hurry; he would slow down and savor life’s pleasures.

     He belonged to no church, having rejected most theology. He detested government’s intrusion into his life, saying that “the best government is that government which governs least.” He had no use for family, marriage, or friends. He had no ambition to acquire personal comforts, and he looked askance upon technology. For example, Henry derided the post office, saying, “I never received more than one or two letters in my life that were worth the postage.” One wonders what he would say about e-mail.

     What does a person have left if he or she has challenged and rejected religion, government, family, career, a home, and society? Two things remain, and the first is nature: trees, air, sunrises, muskrats, squirrels, birds. So he wrote, “I am monarch of all I survey.” He kept appointments with a birch tree. The second is paper and pencil, and so in his cabin he pushed words around on paper, making known his counter-arguments about life and writing what literary scholars today consider great literature.

     It is quite true that our lives today are hectic, packed with the pursuit of things we may or may not need, things we have already bought on the installment plan and now need to pay for. Our jobs require exceptional effort in the name of productivity, and Henry David Thoreau laughs at us. His words still     haunt us, and they puncture many of our cherished dreams, especially our love affair with busyness.

     Thoreau wrote, “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 did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep.”

     Yes, Henry, you were right, and you are still right. You saw a lot more sunrises and sunsets than I will, and the squirrels and birds ate out of your hands. But if given a choice between my comfortable home and your rustic cabin near Walden Pond, on these suffocating hot July days, I will choose my home every time. I like air conditioning, and I think you would too.