“However mean your life is,” says Henry David Thoreau, “meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is.”
I had read this passage from our Unitarian Universalist spiritual ancestor on a morning many years back, while I was still living in Atlanta, after a sleepless night full of drama. What had happened was this. The day before, in late afternoon, I had left my house to go officiate at a wedding, and all was well. But upon my return, around 10pm, when I was close to driving up to my house, I saw how the neighborhood was lit up like Christmas. Streets were closed, heavy equipment was everywhere, there were people in hard hats, and it just so happened that there was a huge hole where the end of my driveway had once been, allowing those hard-hatted folks to fix a leaky water main. Imagine my surprise.
Turns out that the culprit was the tall pine at the edge of my property, which up till that point had seemed friendly-enough; little did I know that its roots over the years had silently aimed for the water pipe running deep underground.
I went to sleep that night with the music of a buzz saw in my ears.
Thus the Henry David Thoreau passage the next morning, while I was being serenaded by the bangs and crashes and beeps of our county’s Water Department tractors and personnel at the literal edge of my driveway, attached to the house I had just purchased three weeks earlier.
Yes, just three weeks earlier.
So I awoke ready for some good news. And so, Thoreau’s message: “love your life, as poor as it is.” I had read the passage before, but changed circumstances—especially when adversity is involved—have a way of deepening one’s sensitivity and perspective.
“Love your life.” “Love your life.” “The morning wind forever blows,” says Thoreau, “the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.” Yes. It is hard to hear this poem when within it is both the good and the bad, the joy of a new house and the woe of water spraying everywhere and Water Department tractors and personnel ripping up your driveway.
We do not hear wholly. This is Thoreau’s constant refrain in his classic book entitled Walden, inspired by his social distancing experiment of living by Walden Pond, all alone, for two years.
We do not hear wholly, and we also fail to grasp the breadth and depth of life’s gifts to us. So he says, “The universe is wider than our views of it.” He says, “Be [an explorer] to whole new continents and worlds within you.” He says, “There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness.” Again and again, our spiritual ancestor wants us to face up to the tragedy of how the poetry of creation goes unheard in all or even in much of its complexity—tragic, because the unique vocation of our humanity in all the wide universe is to witness to creation’s poetry and, beyond that, to become creators ourselves of a poetry of human living that is freedom-loving, compassionate, and just.
This is, after all, the same Thoreau who, out of disgust towards slavery and the corruptions of the American government of his time, wrote “Civil Disobedience” and passionately enjoined his readers to personally enact a poetry of refusing to allow oneself to become a passive agent of social evil, of just doing what the authorities tell you to do.
Resist, he said. Not violently, he added, but nonviolently.
Gandhi, for one, heard him, and so did Dr. King.
What we are speaking of this morning is our holy vocation as humans. Trusting that abundance is deeper than scarcity. Trusting that wholeness is deeper than fragmentation.
And then living into that trust. Letting that trust fill you and send you, wherever you must go.
In the case of my poor house, which I’d owned for just three weeks: knowing that the gaping hole in my driveway and the broken water main and the construction sounds would only be one note in the larger song of my entire time in that house, never mind the complex symphony of my entire life.
And then in the case of the real injustices of life: knowing that, despite how fearfully destructive specific actions of evil and systems of evil can be, still, there persists in the human heart a resilient Love that will remain ever restless until wrong is made right.
I go to Thoreau to be reminded of exactly this.
And you know, it’s true of so many people. I’ve encountered story after story of people who have gone to our Unitarian Universalist ancestor to be reconnected with a sense of purpose and wholeness. To be confirmed in the hope that, as he says, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success in common hours.”
One of these people is Wade Rouse. Wade Rouse is the author of At Least Someone In the City Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life, and in this book, he talks about what it was like to grow up gay in rural America. He says, “I grew up worshipping Erma Bombeck instead of George Brett, Joe Montana, or Buck Owens. When boys from school would come to my house they would inevitably make fun of her books—The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank and If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?—which I had sitting on my nightstand, and the photos of her I had pinned to my corkboard wall.”
“’What’s wrong with you?’ they would ask.”
“Which is why I ran and ran, and kept running,” says Wade Rouse, “from rural America, until I found myself in the city doing everything but what I had initially set out to do. Write. I was making great money, I was traveling, I was eating at the best restaurants. But was I happy?” Ultimately, this question—this yearning—would lead Wade Rouse to emulate Thoreau and return, after so many years, to life in a rural setting, and an opportunity for the poem of creation to emerge and become known.
There are just so many stories of people engaging in their own Walden-like experience. Another one comes from psychologist Stella Resnick, in her book The Pleasure Zone: Why We Resist Good Feelings and How to Let Go and Be Happy. She says, “After years of graduate study and training, I became a successful therapist with a thriving practice in San Francisco. I bought a home, made many friends, and traveled widely giving talks and seminars. The only problem was that I wasn’t happy. […] Here I was—a therapist. I clearly had something worthwhile to offer others; my practice was full. Why wasn’t it working for me? I had been in the best therapy for years, with leaders in my field. I had my insights, my dramatic breakthroughs when I would erupt into tears and rage over the pain of my childhood—my parents’ divorce when I was five, the years living with a neglecting mother and a physically abusive stepfather. I did yoga. I meditated. I exercised. I became a vegetarian. Why did I still suffer? Why wasn’t I happy?”
It would lead her to spend a year in the country “more alone than ever before.” “But this time, she says, “it was a chosen solitude. For guidance, I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Like Thoreau, I had a pond full of croaking frogs in the summer, which froze over in winter. Like Thoreau, I had a visitor now and then and made regular forays into town for supplies. And like Thoreau, days and days would go by when I neither saw nor spoke to another living being.”
It may not be too hard to imagine this, in this time of the pandemic; although Stella Resnick’s experience is very different in that she went into her social distancing lifestyle intentionally and freely. Her story is fascinating, especially in the way that it goes deeper and deeper. At first, it was loneliness and crankiness. She says, “I would find myself staring at a wall, not knowing how long I had been sitting there or what I had been so lost in thought over. […] Some nights when the cold winter wind blew especially hard, I would stay awake stuffing newspapers between the planks of the uninsulated walls of this summer house, grumbling to myself and wondering how this was ever going to make me into a cheerier person.”
At first, it was this. But then the powerful insight came upon her, which is the theme of her book. She says, “What I began to discover during those endless days was how little I knew about how to be happy on a daily basis. I knew how to criticize myself for how I wasn’t good enough. But I didn’t know how to take on a day and enjoy it.” “I began to see.” she says, “that while understanding and releasing pain is certainly crucial for lasting results in psychotherapy, it’s not enough. Getting good at struggling with problems just makes you more skillful at struggling with problems. To enjoy your life more, it’s better to become skillful at what inspires your enthusiasm and generates vitality and good feelings.”
This insight of Stella Resnick’s is just so good. Struggling with problems is not the path to generating joy. It’s just not.
The fault-finder will indeed find faults even in paradise.
Stella Resnick and Thoreau are on the same page. “Sometimes,” says Thoreau of his time at Walden Pond, “in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.“ Thoreau here was practicing the art of living, even as his more proper neighbors completely misunderstood what he was about. They thought he was escaping life, when in fact he was living more deeply into it, applying a discipline of reverie and simple enjoyment that to many is in fact quite difficult.
Along these same lines, Stella Resnick goes on to say, “I certainly have learned a lot over the years, watching people at the office grapple with their need for love and their sexual longings, and then watching my husband and myself grapple with these same issues at home. A major factor that goes unaddressed in most relationships because it is so completely taken for granted is the common tendency to make matters worse by inflicting pain on ourselves and the people we care about—all in the name of trying to make things better.” “We seem to hold a curious philosophy,” she says, “that what brings people closer is talking about how they displease one another. I’ve seen couples who could easily itemize what was lacking for them in the relationship—carefully spelling out their resentments, disappointments, and sexual complaints—who would resist saying how much they appreciated one another.” We get so good at solving problems, in other words, that we can’t step outside of problem-oriented conversations, with ourselves and with others. A sunny doorway is just not drama-ridden enough to hold us, and so we can’t sit there. What is right in our lives and in our relationships is like the wallpaper—goes unnoticed. What is right in our lives is uncomfortable to talk about, since we’re unpracticed in it, or it goes against the grain of our philosophy.
What will it take, to go from being problem-oriented (just that!) to creating some room for also being joy-oriented and appreciative?
I go back to that day, many years ago, when I was hungry for some good news, and I read Thoreau, I read how he says, “Love your life, as poor as it is.” I repeated it again and again, as though it were a fine wine on my tongue, while I watched Atlanta’s Water Department tractors and personnel at the edge of my driveway, working away, and I saw the massive hole, and all the mud and muck.
“Love your life, poor as it is.”
“Love your life, poor as it is.”
Let’s turn once again to Wade Rouse—his Walden story. The day when everything changed, and he made the decision to get out of the city and do the Thoreau thing. He writes, “I had been waking up at four A.M. to write my first memoir about growing up gay, entitled America’s Boy. I had been consumed with writing about my childhood—the beauty, the horror, the unconditional transformational love of family—and could not sleep any longer without getting it all out. One morning, when it came time for me to go to my job as a PR director at a prep school—a position that entailed mucho schmoozing and dwindling self-esteem—I had to force myself to stop writing by turning on the TV as loudly as possible to distract myself.
Wade Rouse continues: “The Today show was blaring as I raced around our tiny city bungalow, leapfrogging our mutt, Marge, in the hallway. Matt Laur was interviewing a couple who had quit their jobs to run a B&B in Bali. ‘We have discovered the secret of happiness. Follow your obsession,’ they told Matt. ‘You freaks!’ I yelled at the TV as I dry-swallowed a vitamin, aspirated Kashi, lint-brushed my suit, reviewed my meeting notes, and tossed a Bonz down the basement stairs for Marge to follow. ‘I’m happy!’
“I found myself in my car, already late to work for another day of insanity and stupidity—already preoccupied about what I was wearing, preoccupied about the fact that I didn’t have enough time to write, preoccupied about the last think I’d yelled. I was happy, damn it! Or was I happy in the way that sheep or lobotomy patients are happy, mindlessly bleating and going through the motions? Was I just one of the ‘sheeple’’ (part sheep, part people), a term a friend of mine used when referring to many Americans who seem to sleepwalk through their lives?
“I got into my car, gripped the wheel, and saw that my hands were shaking. I eased into an all-out traffic jam and instantly came to a complete stop. No! No! No! Move, traffic, I’m late!
“And for one moment in my life, I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t rush ahead. So I started thinking of my morning, of my life. Was I having a bad morning? Or a bad life? I asked myself again, Wade, are you happy?
“And then I became emotional. So emotional, in fact, that I lowered my head on my steering wheel and began to sob as Christina Aguilera told me I was beautiful.
“When a car honked to knock me from my stupor, to let me know I could inch ahead a few feet, I lifted my head from the wheel in time to see a man holding a sign on an overpass above the highway. The man, who looked like a greasy, heavily medicated version of Jesus, held aloft a cardboard sign that read in poorly scrawled letters: WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU COULD NOT FAIL?
“He was backlit by the morning sun, rays splaying from behind his body, and the image looked like one of those religious paintings, in black velvet perhaps, or color-by-numbers, that you find buried under other crap in cluttered antiques stores. […] As my car inched toward the overpass, the man simply reached over and, as if on cue, dropped his sign, which flitted and fluttered and floated like a butterfly caught in a crosswind before landing directly over my windshield. All I could see, in close-up 3D, my eyes crossing to make sure I was still reading it correctly, was its message: WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU COULD NOT FAIL?
“I braked immediately, panicked, unable to see, and fetched the sign off my window, ignoring the angry honks of drivers. I shoved the sign, which was covered in grimy fingerprints and smelled like gas and motor oil, into my backseat. As I came out from under the overpass, I glanced in my rear-view mirror, and Jesus was waving at me—alternatively blowing kisses and doing the sign of the cross, like a mix of the Pope and Liza Minnelli. The sun had obliterated his face into an explosion of whiteness. As my eyes turned toward the road again, it was then I caught a glimpse of the backside of Jesus’ cardboard sign reflected in the driver’s mirror. It was the outside of a packing box, with an address that read: WALDEN’S AUTOMOTIVE.”
And that’s Wade Rouse’s story. The struggles we can go through to get to a place where we can even begin to hear the poetry of the universe. How we can struggle. But although we might abandon ourselves, the universe does not. The world reaches out to us through synchronicities like the one Wade Rouse experienced. The world calls us to a larger life of witnessing to the Wonder and Mystery of creation which is about how abundance is deeper than scarcity and wholeness is deeper than fragmentation and no matter how bad life can get, hope yet remains, hope is unconquerable.
The Wonder and the Mystery is that Walden never stops trying to find us.
The Wonder and the Mystery is that there was ever a man named Thoreau.
Like that guy on the overpass, he waves at us from more than 150 years ago.
Love your life, he says to me, despite the broken water main.
Love your life, he says to us, despite all the problems.
Problem-solving is one thing,
but joy-raising is something else.
The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.
Can there be trust that abundance is deeper than scarcity?
Can there be trust that wholeness is deeper than fragmentation?
What would you do, if you could not fail?
What would it be?
Love your life, West Shore.
Love your life, friends.
Start with love, to end with love.
Love your life.
Love your life.