In Walden, Thoreau wrote that he “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately.” In his book, this sentence continues (as most of his do) for another thirty-three words, through some difficult phrasing, and past at least two more ideas before finding a period. With Thoreau, I’ve found that it’s best to read his writing one page at a time, and then to focus in on one or two sentences. I like to meditate on them as I would a set of aphorisms, to focus on only the essential meanings, and see if I could not learn what he had to say, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not understood him.
I hope a reader who loves Thoreau sees what I did there.
Wishing to live deliberately is a lofty and worthy thing to declare. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about deliberate living this year. I’ve lost two people unexpectedly since January, and their absence is changing the way I think about and interact with my world. The first loss, Mark Baumer, was struck fatally by an SUV as he was walking across America to raise awareness for climate change. Honestly, I could leave out the details of his activism, because the simple fact is that he was living deliberately. His death was perhaps as far from deliberate as one can get. French absurdist philosopher Albert Camus once said that the most absurd, random way for a person to die was to be struck by a car, and I agree. Mark Baumer: deliberate life, random death.
My second loss was recent. I won’t give his name because it’s still very soon, and the details of his passing are such that I don’t want to give information that is not mine to give. This loss was the opposite of Mark’s. This person made the deliberate decision to end his life. I imagine that he saw his life as the opposite of the kind that Mark had lived. His life was not, of course, without people’s love and care, and there could be much meaning to be found in the things he did. He gave liberally of himself to those around him, brought cheer with him wherever he went, and filled silent rooms with stories of his varied and far-reaching life.
All of this, however, does not give me or anyone else a right to say that he should have found meaning in his life. Meaning and purpose cannot ever be given; if a person has the audacity to try to assign meaning or purpose to another’s life, then they have clearly not tasted it for themselves. Meaning and purpose are personal. Outward appearances do not necessarily indicate the sense of purpose a person has, or the lack thereof. What my friend chose to find meaningful or purposeful was his business, and his alone.
The tragedy of my now deceased friend is made more troubling by the amount of good that he did, and in that way he is so very similar to my friend Mark. Both were men who touched the lives of others around them. The only difference is that one had finally (and, I believe, luckily) found a purpose and meaning in their giving, and the other hadn’t. I imagine that some might struggle with this idea. How could my recent friend not have found meaning in helping others or brightening rooms? Unfortunately, that is never a question that we have a right to answer for another human being, and one that we will never have an opportunity to know.
What scares me is to think that the one thing my friend did deliberately cost him his life. I do not believe that his deliberation came from a healthy place, and perhaps came from a feeling of helplessness. I also believe that the remedy for helplessness comes straight from Thoreau: to attempt to live as deliberately as possible.
I could dwell for a thousand years on what my friend did, and still come no closer to understanding the way he saw his life. In fact, I may end up dwelling on it for a long time. But that struggle is not for prose, it is for poetry. The immensity of my confusion and sadness cannot be systematically reasoned through, but it can perhaps be touched, and I will save further reflections on suicide for literary forms less rationally demanding than the essay.
And so we come back to Thoreau and deliberate living. Too often, people enjoy pleasure as deliberately as they can and muddle through the rest, which they call ‘labor.’ Few people want to dwell upon labor. The number of times each day that a coworker says “almost there” or during the week is caught saying “almost Friday” betrays our desire to rush through those parts of time that are unpleasant. When we finally get to a part of life that we deem to be ‘pleasure,’ most of us clutch to it in the fearful knowledge that it will soon pass. Inevitably, it passes, and we often remark that it passed too quickly. An attempt to live deliberately is, in my eyes, an attempt to solve this problem.
Living deliberately is not an attempt to seek pleasure in all aspects of life. This, I believe, is a fool’s errand; no one enjoys everything about their life. If they do, then I image they are not living even remotely close to a deliberate life. No, living deliberately is akin to Socrates’ (or Plato’s) famous phrase: “an unexamined life is not worth living.” To live deliberately is to ask of each thing that you do, “why am I doing this?” Living deliberately is an attempt to understand yourself more, why you do certain things, and perhaps discover where it is you can change your life for the better. We long for five o’clock or for Fridays mostly because we don’t want to confront ourselves; we either don’t have a good reason for continuing to work one job rather than another, or we are uncomfortable with the realization that we need whatever job we have. In either case, dwelling is not pleasurable, and we therefore avoid it. You can use the same method for your significant other, a large purchase, or your precious Friday night plans. Living deliberately requires not only that you ask hard questions, but analyze answers. Are you really going out because you’re celebrating being done with your week’s work? Or are you just afraid to miss out on a night with friends? Or are you trying to avoid something at home? Living deliberately requires the strength to get into it with yourself at every turn until the answers are less suspect. The process is long and tiring, but it is the way a person ought to live.
To live deliberately is to engage life as never before; it is heroic and difficult, but also rewarding. A deliberate life is one where the actions are being questioned, the questions are being answered, and the answers survive scrutiny to arrive at satisfaction. All things become negotiable, and the negotiation is one of justification. What do I do? How do I act? How do I justify my actions? Am I satisfied with my justifications? If not, how can I change? This path leads away from the comfortable bliss of ignorance and towards a deeper, more ‘lived’ life. Actions become less about how you pass your time and more about what you actually do with it. And I, for one, am ready for the challenge.
Losing two friends has been more terrible than I think even my conscious mind is aware of. And the thought of becoming a father this September is vast. Between loss and life, I’m turning more and more to the words of men who idealized action over leisure, doing over being, and the ability to look oneself in the mirror, nod, and say “yes.”