All the Time in the World

They say if you remove a tiger from its cage after years in confinement, it will continue to pace back and forth within a narrow space after it is freed. I have no way to confirm this, but it certainly sounds plausible, based on my own experience. I know that after I retired I continued with my same routine, more or less, even though I no longer had a job to go to. I got up at the same time every day without the benefit of an alarm and went about my business, quickly filling my time with a multitude of projects. Retired people will often tell you don’t know how they ever found time to hold down a job, and I know this to be true in my case.

Working stiffs often fantasize about what they would do if they had all the time in the world. Yet, while the job may go away, but there are still meals to prepare, errands to run, bills to pay, family to attend to, social and community obligations and so forth. You fall back into a routine, and before you know it, you are like the tiger that has been let out of his cage but is still pacing back and forth.

Those who fantasize about having all the time in the world may look to Henry David Thoreau for inspiration. During his short life, Thoreau was variously employed as a schoolmaster, a handyman, a surveyor, a tutor and a sometime employee at his father’s pencil-making factory. He reckoned he could satisfy his few material wants by working about six weeks a year. Even then, his approach to work could hardly have endeared him to many employers. “The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure,” he wrote in one of his journals. “There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day.” He added, “Those who work much do not work hard.”

Thoreau famously observed in his masterwork Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Their mistake, he believed, was in allowing their lives to be consumed by their efforts to make a living – and for what? The pursuit of money without any regard for their true needs. He wrote in his essay, “Walking”: “Their highest duty in life to accumulate colored paper! Does any divinity stir within them?”

One critic described Walden as a Stoic treatise on life, meaning that Thoreau embraced nature, solitude and asceticism. He built a cabin in the woods and resolved to live off the land. His two-year sojourn at Walden Pond (compressed to a single year in the book) was avowedly an experiment in what he called living deliberately, in stripping life down to its bare essentials to discover what was truly important. As Thoreau wrote:

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 thumbnail.

As a guide for the caged tiger, Walden may be of limited use. I defy you to keep your accounts on your thumbnail if you have to maintain a checking account, much less file a tax return – indeed, Thoreau once refused to pay his taxes as a political protest and landed himself in jail. He was able to live a simple life because he lived in a simpler time. And even then he was unburdened by family obligations – no wife, no children, no mortgage; and, needless to say, no car payments, no insurance premiums, no tuition costs. His cabin by Walden Pond was erected on land belonging to his friend and patron, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and much of the structure itself had originally been built elsewhere and reassembled on the property at a total cost of 28 dollars, 12-1/2 cents. (For someone who kept his accounts on his thumbnail, Thoreau closely tracked his expenditures.)

Critics point out that Thoreau’s back-to-nature existence was far less rustic than he made out. Walden Pond was only a 20-minute stroll from Concord and was bordered on one side by the commuter train line to Boston. He would walk into town almost daily to cadge meals from friends or to bring laundry for his mother to wash. The pond itself was a popular spot for swimmers in summer and ice-skaters in winter. Thoreau’s idea of getting away from it all did not actually involve getting very far away.

Still, Thoreau’s appeal has remained undiminished in the more than century and a half since Walden was published in 1854. There will always be those who fret about civilization’s encroachments on the soul, even if Thoreau’s chuck-it-all prescription doesn’t get you very far. And quite apart from his philosophizing, he is a nature writer without peer. One of the advantages of having time on his hands is that he had the time to just sit at the door of his cabin and observe closely as life unfolded around him from hour to hour and from one season to the next. Sit still long enough and you find the stillness at the heart of everything. Even time – or at least the time that ticks away on your wrist or on the wall – eventually succumbs to this stillness.

Thoreau wrote: "In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line." When you have found the sweet spot between these two eternities, you do not think in terms of saving time or how much time you have left. “I do not so much wish to know how to economize time as how to spend it,” Thoreau said. Of course, even he did not have all the time in the world. He died of tuberculosis at age 44. But the final measure of his life was not how much time he had but how well he used it.

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