President’s Page-Finding That Sense of Purpose

Henry David Thoreau is now considered to have been a century ahead of his time in realizing the problems that the growing complexity of our civilization would and did produce, according to the Introduction by Walter Harding to The Selected Works of Thoreau, 1975, Houghton Mifflin Company.  “Simplify, simplify, simplify” may not have seemed a vital message in the mid-nineteenth century, but it has become essential today if we are to survive. Unless we become selective in our interests, our actions, our endorsements, we are likely to drown in trivia or become schizophrenic, so sayeth Mr. Harding.  Now that describes just about everyone that I cross paths with in my daily travels, including myself.

H.D. Thoreau had a plan to work six weeks out of the year, so that he could enjoy the rest of the year in endeavors that he enjoyed.  He wanted to be a writer, so he stripped himself of everything but the essentials, so that he could live at Walden Pond.  Six weeks of working must have been enough for whatever essentials he needed. I don’t expect that any of us would want to simplify so much that we could afford to work only six weeks and devote our time to our fancies or passions for the rest of the year.

What I do think is most valuable from reading Thoreau’s works again (didn’t we all do it in college?), is that he does not advocate everyone going to their own Walden Pond. That place can be any place that you like; it can also simply be a place in your mind. (Take care if this makes you more schizophrenic.) But, seriously, merely stepping back from the chaos at times and allowing yourself to enjoy something (it is not supposed to be work-related), can be simply very comforting.

It would be a good thing for each of us to come to this special place before we overexert ourselves from too much work at the office. Take, for example, the saga of world-class runner Alberto Salazar.  He pushed himself so much to be the best, that he had a heart attack (which, of course, stopped his running career).  He is now engaged in coaching young runners, in order to find a replacement for himself.  The interesting concept about his heart attack, which left him with no heartbeat for 14 minutes, is that he refers to it as ‘temporarily fatal’, rather than ‘near fatal’. (The Marathoner Speaks to His God, by John Brant, The New York Times Magazine, p. 60)    I guess he was ‘dead’ for those 14 minutes.  Hopefully, we don’t all have to experience One Step Beyond before we can take a seat on a slower ship.

Remember Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol?  Scrooge was a mean old so and so who changed his behavior overnight; to wake the next day ready for a better life after three ghosts visited him and showed him his evil ways.  When Scrooge stepped away to observe his life, he felt really bad about his fatal flaws.

‘Make no mistake, law, like medicine, the most elite of the traditional professions-have always been demanding.  But they were also unquestionably prestigious.’  The Falling Down Professions,  Alex Williams, NY Times 1/6/08, Sunday Styles, p. 1. ‘The oldest professions have lost their allure, their status, and it is not all about money.  Something is missing say many doctors and lawyers: the old sense of purpose, of respect, of living at the center of American society and embodying its definition of “success”.  ‘In a culture that prizes risk and reward-where professional heroes are college dropouts with billion-dollar Web sites-some doctors and lawyers feel they have slipped a notch in social status. The standards of what makes a prestigious career have changed.  According to lawyers that Mr. Williams spoke to for his article, they are leaving the practice at an increasing rate, to do something that they thinks counts for something.

I have heard it said that Thoreau is the voice of conscience.  He asks not to listen to his words, but to the voice within ourselves that his words stir up, Walter Harding (cited above) maintains. “That is why he seems such a prickly, erinaceous porcupine to many, for one’s conscience is not always easy to live with, particularly if one begins to pay attention to it.”

Even if we don’t have a clear idea of exactly what our fancies or passions would have us do, it sure is exciting to think about it. Meanwhile, while we are on the treadmill, stop and smell the roses, or grow some, or send some, or just buy some and put them on the table in your office.

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