Spevak: Marching to the beat of simplification

john.spevak@gmail.comDecember 27, 2013 

As I thought of a resolution for 2014, I decided first not to look ahead but backward – to 1854.

It may seem strange to seek inspiration from that far back. Many urge us to forget yesterday’s news, let alone the thoughts of 160 years ago. But I frequently go back for inspiration to 1854, the year Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” – one of my favorite books of American literature – was first published.

There are many ideas in Thoreau’s book from which I could create a new resolution. In “Walden,” Thoreau describes his life and thoughts when he lived for a year in a cabin next to a pond alone.

Thoreau wrote, for example, that we should believe in ourselves and have the courage to follow a “different drummer.”

As I look ahead to a new year, the idea of Thoreau’s that resonates with me most as a resolution is simplification.

In “Walden,” Thoreau wrote that “our life is frittered away by detail.” He added that “in the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life,” we encounter “clouds and storms and quicksands and a thousand-and-one items.”

What would Thoreau write if he were living in 2013, soon to be 2014? If he thought civilized life in 1854 was filled with 1,001 items, just imagine the number today. Information and obligations are coming at us from all directions – from our job, our family, the television, the internet and on and on.

Thoreau, if he were alive today, would be astounded and saddened, and he would have shouted even more loudly what he wrote in his 1854 book: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

As Thoreau explained in his journal, “As for the complex ways of living, I love them not. In as many places as possible, I will get my feet down to the earth.” So that’s my resolution for the new year, to sidestep life’s complexities and get my feet down to the earth.

Now the question is how to do this in 2014. I think I’ll need a few sub-resolutions, such as these:

•  Avoid listening to, reading about, and especially watching “the news.” I say this with some reluctance, since in my younger days I was determined to keep up with current events. But now the events are coming at me 24 hours a day, and almost all of them are depressing or trivial and beyond my control.

•  Avoid listening to and especially watching commercials. They are constantly telling me things to fear (especially illnesses) and pointing out all the things I don’t have (and don’t need).

•  Spend less time on electronic devices, including my PC, laptop, iPad and smartphone. This seems to be particularly hard to do. As my wife says to me, “You’re always fiddling around with the computer.”

Electronics seems to have a particular magnetism for the human brain (and fingers) today. And that’s for an old guy like me who doesn’t play video games. Imagine the distracting magnetism of electronic devices for younger adults, teenagers, children and even infants.

So much for things not to do. But to truly follow Thoreau’s advice, I need to go beyond the negative and include some positive resolutions:

•  Limit the list of “things-to-do” for a given day. That will be hard since I’m always making lists. Maybe I just need to make those lists shorter.

•  Discard more than accumulate. Thoreau would be shocked at how much “stuff” almost all of us have today that we don’t really need.

•  Live more in the present and less in the past or the future. Easy to say, hard to do. Our minds always seem to going backward or forward, and seldom stay still.

•  Savor interactions with others, especially among family and friends. There’s much to be enjoyed, for example, in a long leisurely meal or in a relaxed game of “Scrabble.”

•  Walk more. Thoreau would like this, since he spent a lot of his days strolling and meandering. Walking, whether alone or with others, helps slow down the pace of life and encourages heightened observation and deeper reflection.

That’s enough resolving, in fact probably more than Thoreau would advise. I’ll end by returning to Thoreau’s own clear, concise and complete suggestion: “Simplify!”

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 30 years, are encouraged and can be sent to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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