Thoreau famously said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! 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.”
Thoreau, who was born in 1817 and died 44 years later, in 1862, lived in a simpler time – no automobiles, no cell phone, text or twitter messages…no telephone; no television or computers, no electric lights, no cinema and no standing in front of an x-ray machine without a belt in your stocking feet at the airport security check in lines – no flight delays or anxiety about turbulence at 30,000 feet.
It was easier for him to say ‘simplify.’ But we live in a more complicated time.
His comment about keeping your accounts on your thumb nail brought a smile — it was unintentionally prophetic – he had no way of knowing that we can store and listen to hundreds of songs on a little iPod, and read dozens of books on a device the size of your thumb nail in an iPad; or the so-called Thumb Drive, the memory stick the size of a thumb that can store everything Henry wrote, and then some!
What would poor Henry think of black Friday, especially when it has now been moved up to Thanksgiving Thursday afternoon, after hurrying the meal with the family so you can be first in line at the Walmart store nearest you?
Thoreau lived in a simpler time, but he thought that life had become too complicated, what with railroads replacing long buggy rides and all, so he built his little cabin in the woods – but remember, those woods were owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson who was living in the fast lane, going around the country on trains, lecturing on self-reliance, while Thoreau was experimenting with self-reliance at Walden Pond.
He was doing what Emerson was talking about; he worked for Emerson from time to time, taking care of Emerson’s property, tending to his orchids and house in Concord.
Thoreau cultivated simple pleasures – a daily walk at Walden Pond and around town; and there was nothing from which Thoreau got more pleasure than reading a book on botany – he loved to learn the names of the plants (so he could address them properly when he spoke to them and befriended them!)
The scrupulous records he kept about plant life at Walden Pond are now being used by botanists who are studying the evolution of plant life and climate change. They use Thoreau’s notes, which he did not keep on his thumbnail, but in thousands of journal pages. He was a naturalist and is often called our first environmentalist.
Thoreau was a meticulous observer of the plants at Walden – he kept records of the first blossoms of over 500 species of wildflowers in Concord between 1851 and 1858. Recently a biology professor at Boston University discovered Thoreau’s unpublished records and he realized how useful they would be for help in pinning down the impact of climate change over the last 150 years
The scientists say that, “The timing of seasonal events such as flowering dates is known as phenology, and the phenologies of plants in a temperate climate such as that of Massachusetts are very sensitive to temperature. Studying phenology is therefore a good indicator of ecological responses to climate change.”
They found that the plants Thoreau recorded, on average, are now flowering 10 days earlier than they were in Thoreau’s time. They estimate that the average temperature in Concord increased by 2.4C.
“They concluded that 27% of the species recorded by Thoreau are no longer present in Concord at all, and a further 36% of formerly common species were now rare.”
Thoreau didn’t ‘fritter away his life with detail,’ but he devoted much of his waking life to keeping those detailed records.
He knew the difference between simplicity, which makes complex problems easy to understand, and being simplistic, which is oversimplifying complex problems.
In any case, those detailed records turned out to be a very useful gift – a simple gift…which is a long way around the barn to get back to the sermon topic…or the sermon title, at least: simple gifts.
Eusebius, a Christian theologian who lived in the 4th century, was on the side of Arius in the debate about the Trinity – so he was an early Unitarian – and, like Thoreau, he urged a more simple life, a more spiritual life.
Eusebius said, “May I be no one’s enemy and may I be the friend of that which is eternal and abides…may I never fail a friend and may I respect myself and may I always keep tame that which rages in me…never be angry with others…”
That’s a kind of spiritual simplicity, not to be confused with being simplistic – a lack of good sense, a simple-minded foolishness.
Eusebius’s simplicity was sophisticated and applies today as much as it did in the 4th century in which he preached and taught.
Eusebius’s simplicity influenced William Henry Channing (not to be confused with his uncle, William Ellery Channing, the so-called father of Unitarianism in America.) You can see the echo of Eusebius in William Henry Channing’s affirmation which he called, ‘my symphony.’ He said it simply:
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not, rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common–this is my symphony.”
Channing uses the word symphony in the sense that we need to find balance – to live in harmony. The word symphony in this sense acknowledges that life is complex – it’s an elaborate composition of all the elements of life…a symphony.
A person who knows he has enough is wealthy, in the sense Channing means.
We have been encouraged to want only one thing: more! Our interdependent economy depends on it! To paraphrase the narrator of Charles Dicken’s famous Christmas Carol, speaking of wanting more, “The wisdom of our ancestors is in it and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it or the country’s done for!”)
Yet we long for a kind of contentment – to be satisfied with what we have – to want what we have rather than always wanting what we don’t have. More.
Contentment is ‘when the heart is in a holy place.’
But let’s acknowledge, for the sake of credibility – so we can be taken seriously – that we live in complicated times, in a complicated place, which is precisely why we need to be reminded of Thoreau’s advice about simplifying, and Eusebius’s credo, and Channing’s symphony.
We’ve entered the complicated season, which we optimistically refer to as ‘the holidays.’ Advent.
The lottery winners are dividing a half-billion dollars.
Folks are preparing for Hunukkah and Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
It can easily become a time filled with anxiety – asking yourself, “Am I doing it right? Am I getting the right gifts for loved ones?”
The easiest time for me was when my children were very young – we knew how to ‘do’ Christmas…the tree and decorations in the house, the presents opened early on Christmas morning…and so forth.
Then the kids got older and told us what they wanted, and we began to get a bit anxious over spoiling them…now called entitlement – that’s about the time when McDonald’s came out with their slogan ‘you deserve a break today,’ which first came out in 1971 – Susan was eight and Jonathan was four.
I’m not sure just when it was that I started to worry about that – about the danger of what we used to call ‘spoiling them.’ After all, my parents, who had very limited financial means, spoiled us with all those presents under and around the tree, but very early on my brothers, sisters and I saw it as a their love for us, and I think my children did the same.
Then grandchildren came along and I was more concerned about the development of good values in the midst of the abundance they experienced.
When they were in middle school I started a tradition of giving them an early Christmas gift of money, which I told them I wanted them to use to buy gifts for their parents.
That tradition is over, now that they’re both out of college and carving out an adult life for themselves.
I mention this to give a context to what has become a hot topic this year – the letter from a father in the UK, Nick Crews, to his adult children…it’s being referred to as ‘the Crew’s Missile,’ sparking an op-ed piece by David Brooks. Nick Crew’s addresses his missive to his three adult children by addresses them as: “Dear All Three,” a severe salutation and clear warning of the explosion to follow: He writes:
“With last evening’s crop of whines and tidings of more rotten news for which you seem to treat your mother like a cess-pit, I feel it is time to come off my perch.
“It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us. We are seeing the miserable death throes of the fourth of your collective marriages at the same time we see the advent of a fifth.”
“I wonder if you realize how we feel — we have nothing to say which reflects any credit on you or us. Fulfilling careers based on your educations would have helped — but as yet none of you is what I would confidently term properly self-supporting.”
“So we witness the introduction to this life of six beautiful children — soon to be seven — none of whose parents have had the maturity and sound judgment to make a reasonable fist at making essential threshold decisions. …
“The predictable result has been a decade of deep unhappiness over the fates of our grandchildren. If it wasn’t for them, Mum and I would not be too concerned, as each of you consciously, and with eyes wide open, crashes from one cock-up to the next. It makes us weak that so many of these events are copulation-driven, and then helplessly to see these lovely little people being woefully let down by you, their parents.”
“I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about.”
The e-mail is signed, “I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed. Dad.”
The thing about being the parent of grown children (mine are 49 and 45) is like the day I first put them on the school bus, only they don’t come home in the afternoon to tell me about their day…as they did back then.
There’s a degree to which that feeling sits there without relief, except when they call or visit, which is never often enough, or long enough, or good enough.
In those early adult years when they were on their own, there was an underlying fear of having failed them in some way – having sent them into the big bad world without the necessary equipment. It’s like the feeling you have when driving away for a vacation and you have a nagging sense that you forgot to shut off the stove, or the coffee maker – you want to turn back and check on it, but you keep driving and eventually forget about the stove or coffee maker; but with adult children you don’t forget.
Nick Crews unintentionally reveals the anxiety we parents of adult children feel about our parenting. His was not so hot. He whines to his children about their whining to their mother!
He complains to his children about their tendency to complain to their mother, he delivers rotten news about his hurt feelings and complains about their delivering more rotten news about their lives.
He sounds like a spoiled brat!
He thinks he’s entitled to worry-free parenting, partly because his work kept him away from home a lot when the kids were little, so he didn’t build a tolerance for hearing about their latest problems, and he didn’t build up an appreciation to have the kids call their mother in the first place.
He feels powerless to protect their mother, his wife, from her children’s pain, and he vents his anger, like the kid on the playground who was unfairly called out at first base so he took his bat and went home, interrupting the game in progress.
Parenting adult children is a game in progress. It doesn’t end just because they finished college, moved out of the house, got married and had children of their own, and divorces of their own. He blames the victims of his poor parenting skills, his lack of patience and lack of sensitivity.
David Brooks says, “Nick Crews was, by his own admission, a middling father. He enjoyed cuddling with his three kids, but he was frequently away on naval deployments and didn’t stay in touch with them once they went off to boarding school.”
I’m not suggesting that his adult children’s problems are his fault, that poor parenting is to blame. I’m suggesting, however, that we have to move beyond blame, either blaming ourselves or others, and we need to ‘simplify, simplify.’
It is, indeed, ‘a gift to be simple.’ It’s a big gift, and it’s available. Instead of hitting the send button, Nick Crews and his family might have been better served if he hit the delete button, and you are now better served if I take my hands off of home row and hit the print button.
He should read Sandburg’s little poem titled Primer Lesson:
Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is
not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots; they
walk off proud; they can’t hear you calling—
Look out how you use proud words
We’ll close on a more positive, helpful note, with Thomas Gordon’s Credo for My Relationship to Others:
You and I are in a relationship, which I value and want to keep. Yet each of us is a separate person with unique needs and the right to meet those needs.
When you are having problems meeting your needs I will listen with genuine acceptance so as to facilitate your finding your own solutions instead of depending on mine. I also will respect your right to choose your own beliefs and develop your own values, different though they may be from mine.
However, when your behavior interferes with what I must do to get my own needs met, I will tell you openly and honestly how your behavior affects me, trusting that you respect my needs and feelings enough to try to change the behavior that is unacceptable to me. Also, whenever some behavior of mine is unacceptable to you, I hope you will tell me openly and honestly so I can change my behavior.
At those times when one of us cannot change to meet the other’s needs, let us acknowledge that we have a conflict and commit ourselves to resolve each such conflict without either of us resorting to the use of power to win at the expense of the other’s losing. I respect your needs, but I also must respect my own. So let us always strive to search for a solution that will be acceptable to both of us. Your needs will be met, and so will mine – neither will lose, both will win.
In this way, you can continue to develop as a person through satisfying your needs, and so can I. Thus, ours can be a healthy relationship in which both of us can strive to become what we are capable of being. And we can continue to relate to each other with mutual respect, love and peace.