Chucking It All Vacariously

Dear Will:

You know that feeling you get when you have 8,000 things you ought to do but the only thing you want to do is watch the ballgame? When your list is so long that you want to tell it “so long”? I’ve been feeling that way a lot lately.

There was a moment today when I was talking on my desk phone, another call was coming in on the second line, and my cell phone began to ring. At the time, I was staring at my email inbox, at the 60 or 70 unread messages and the 40 others on which I need to follow up. I pondered the clutter that surrounded me. And I thought how nice it would be to simply get up, walk out, and not come back.

Henry David Thoreau followed that same urge when he went off to live in the woods for a couple of years. He said he went there to live “deliberately.” Afterwards he said the following:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

I fell in love with Walden when I was in high school, for the same reason that he appeals to me now over 20 years hence: Thoreau puts into beautiful prose words of inspiration and aspiration, and if I lack the disposition to chuck it all and head to the woods, at least through Walden I have the option of doing so vicariously.  And rereading this passage reminds me that my next rereading is long overdue. Now I don’t presume to foist Henry David upon you—I have learned over the years that he is an acquired taste. But I figure it couldn’t hurt any of us—myself especially—to be reminded of the benefits of a simpler existence.

It’s probably wishful thinking—correction: it is wishful thinking; but even wishful thinking can be constructive if not done to excess. So I’ll end this brief lament with a few more ascendant words from HDT, words which remind us that there is more to life than the mundane details that preoccupy and distract us from day to day: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”


Fill Your Cruse with Oil

Dear Will:

How have you been? Here at our house we have been mostly busy and frazzled—business as usual, I’m afraid. I have this deep belief that we would all be better off if we found a way to heed Henry David Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Of course, Henry had to go live like a hermit in the woods to pull that off. With neither the woods nor the means at my disposal, I remain content to simply read Walden and continue feeling frazzled. (By the way: If you’ve never read it, you ought to. It’s a true classic.)

Speaking of classics, I was sharing a Bible story with my children the other day and thought of you. We were talking about Elijah, one of the great characters of the scriptures. He first appears in First Kings, chapter 17, wherein he picks a pretty good fight with King Ahab. Right off, Elijah draws his line in the sand: “As the Lord God of Israel liveth,” he says, “there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Then he sneaks off to live by a brook and be fed by ravens (how cool is that?).

The truly noteworthy part, however, is what comes next. The Lord sends Elijah to the town of Zeraphath, where he is to find a widow woman to take care of him. As you may recall, the unexpected twist of the story comes when Elijah finds the woman and asks for something to eat. She responds this way: “I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (1 Kings 17:12).

Now comes the tricky part—the test of the woman’s faith. Says Elijah: “Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son (1 Kings 17:13). Notice that Elijah didn’t say, “Could you make me one while you’re at it?” On the contrary, he asked the woman to feed him first before preparing the meal for herself and her son. Here’s why: “For thus saith the Lord,” declared Elijah, “The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth. And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat for many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:14-16).

The lesson of this story is simple, yet profound. The widow and all her house were blessed far beyond her simple act of faith, simply because she was willing to heed the counsel of the Prophet. Imagine how her story would have been different had she given a different, seemingly reasonable response such as this: “I’m sorry, but my child’s needs come first; you’ll have to ask someone else.” Read the concluding verses of the chapter and you’ll find out to what degree the woman was actually taking care of her child by showing faith in the Prophet’s counsel.

The main reason I bring all this up (besides the fact that it’s a great story) is that the Church’s semi-annual General Conference is coming up next week and I wanted to remind you of it. On Saturday, March 31, and Sunday, April 1, you can sit in the comfort of your own home and hear the counsel of a living Prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley. Sessions are typically broadcast on cable with sessions at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. each day. Even if you have other stuff you have to do around the house, I encourage you to turn on the Conference and let it play in the background. It will bring a marvelous spirit into your home.

It will also give you a chance to listen to a Prophet of God and exercise your faith by heeding his word. Given the widow’s experience, it’s an almost irresistible opportunity. I know that it will be a blessing to our family, and I am looking forward to the chance. I hope you’ll take advantage of it too.

Best wishes to you and yours.