Real Comforts

“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

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Photo by Alex von der Assen as featured on Kent Griswold’s Tiny House Blog.

Heavy words when you think about them.

I like nice stuff.  I buy good clothes, decent shoes, and drive a new(ish) vehicle.  We all like new, nifty, better, and clever things.  The problem is that we are trained from a young age to grab the newest gizmo and gimmick presented to us.  We are programmed to stockpile and hoard.  Advertisers know this.  Bankers know this.  We spend what we earn, and then a little more.

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When we pick up an object, we don’t always think of how this thing will add value to our life; or whose life was devalued to make it and bring it to us.

More stuff is not the path to happiness…

Jobs, Work, and Taking Control of Possessions (an updated ramble)

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Comfort in the parlour. Artist, John Edward Soden, ca.1836–1897.

Comfort in the Parlour. Artist, John Edward Soden, ca.1836–1897.

Possessions don’t make us happy!  Situations do.

Possessions, desire, covetousness, craving, yearning, lust; these forces drive humanity. Somehow each generation of moral thinkers know these things are ultimately wrong and look for something deeper.  With virtually every major religion and most schools of moral philosophy reiterating this through the millennia it’s surprising any of us even pretend to a higher conscience in the age where consumption is a human’s primary role.

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A Taoist monk wearing a coat made from cast-off scraps of cloth as a sign of his un-attachment.

And yet, each generation produces it’s share of radicals who cling to the hope that we can get more from life by having less. 

At some point, some of us have an epiphany about what is truly important in life.  It’s not the pursuit of money.  Life is short, so if you don’t enjoy what you do from day-to-day, them something needs to change.  Look around.  How many ways are people and companies trying to sell you something you didn’t even know you wanted?  Is it worth selling your soul, one hour at a time?  Not to me.  Not any more.  Like so many people before me, I wasted much of my youth.  Not all of it, but large swaths of time were sold away to an employer for mere money.  Not that giving time to a cause is an evil in itself.  Helping a friend, working with kids, or teaching a skill; all are noble pursuits and are, in a sense, work.  These things just don’t fall into that class of mindless drudgery that makes up most day jobs.

Filling a McMansion with junk is not a road to happiness. It's the road to enslavement.

Filling a McMansion with things you don’t need while struggling to pay the mortgage is not a road to happiness. It’s the road to enslavement.

Even in our hobbies, generally they are just fillers.  Something to be done in our leisure time, and somehow not part of “real life.”  Isn’t this backwards?  Shouldn’t we fill our days with things we love; music, family, reading, writing, wandering, or just plain idling?  We are taught to criticize the idle and there is possibly some logic to it.

At a family or village level, its easy to see how we might resent someone who doesn’t pull their weight; and rightly so, but that doesn’t mean we need to forget to live a satisfying life along the way.

I am often amazed how angry even the most privileged people become when they think someone is getting a handout for free.  Taking this to an extreme, people relish in the schadenfreude*.

I think many of us are that person at some point in our lives, but with  spiritual growth, this petty thinking will be only a phase.

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Finding your  joy.  In this case, a little wine, song, and presumably, camaraderie.

We have, as a society, confused real and honest work, with mindlessly stumbling to a job.  Even with a so-called “good job” most of us have no stake in our employer, other than making sure the check comes regularly.  Choosing to not punch the clock does not make one a slacker.  My friends and acquaintances who choose to live outside this system are the hardest working people I know.

They just don’t sell their lives cheaply for others’ gain.

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Maintaining a garden is work, but providing for yourself and family directly eliminates the constant need for the middle-men.

Taking control of your needs, even a little, alleviates some of the more abstract time demands paid out to someone else by serving yourself directly.  The most negative comment I have heard about doing these things for oneself is “I don’t have enough time!”  Yes, doing things like gardening or making clothes or furniture or tools takes time but at some point it becomes a trade-off.  Is it a bigger waste of time to commute and hour to work each way or spend two hours with the kids in the garden?

For me, there’s no question; and I’m certainly not the first person to reach this conclusion.

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Finding your inner peace.  Dervish, with leopard and a lion, ca 1650.

I think this need for, or as a result of, spiritual awakening is the driving force behind many religious and philosophical movements over many thousands of years.  And, of course, they are all the one true path, religion, paradigm, whatever-you-call-it (leading to division, persecution, strife, and war; some irony, eh?).  Once the epiphany hits, there is realization that the system is not really necessary.  To make it through life, few possessions are truly essential.

Join me on a journey to a better life…

gandhi

A well-known photo of the personal effects of Mahatma Gandhi.

“Chase your passion, not your pension.”
— Denis Waitley

*Schadenfreude– the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune; an all-too common evil in humanity.

Seven Years at a Time…

An old look at the life of man –

Unknown artist, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council.

Seven years to childhood’s sport and play,

Seven years in school from day to day,

Seven years at Trade or College life,

Seven years to find a Virtuous Wife.

Seven years to pleasure’s follies given,

Seven years to labour hardly driven,

Seven years for some a wild Goose chase,

Seven years for wealth a bootless race.

Seven years for hoarding for your heir,

Seven years in weakness spent in care,

Then die and go – you should know where.

The artist depicts it in ten stages, then you die, but who’s splitting hairs?  All roads lead to the same end.  It looks like I need to get on to Pleasure’s follies for a couple more years.

Baden-Powell’s Last Message to Scouts

Most people that know me are aware that I owe much of my foundation and success in life to a very positive experience in the Boy Scouts of America.  There were many lame troops and leaders not worth their salt but I, and several of my closest friends, were fortunate in finding ourselves thrown together as a cohort in an excellent troop that spent much of it’s time camping, hiking, and generally messing about in outdoors; we were unknowingly living the roots of Scouting and loving it every day.

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Scouts camping; early 20th century America.  I think that is a 42 star flag? Interesting.

I recently came across a copy of what is known as Baden-Powell’s (founder of the Boy Scouts) last message to Scouts.  I even kept a framed copy of this hanging on my wall for many years.  While working at camp, we often read this short piece out loud at closing campfires as a fine message and an excellent way to bring an end to an exciting week of learning and adventure.

I think he does well to distill his core values in a few simple lines.

“Happiness doesn’t come from being rich, nor merely from being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so can enjoy life when you are a man.”

B-P knew both great hardship and prosperity during his life and understood that most youth to whom he was speaking had very little themselves.  Real happiness come from within.

“Be contented with what you have got and make the best of it. Look on the bright side of things instead of the gloomy one.”

A core value in Scouting has always been to give cheerfully to others and in that way find satisfaction and meaning in one’s own life.

“the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it, and when your turn comes to die you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best.”

As he ends his letter, he segues from childhood to transition the message into one of lifelong relevance.

“‘Be Prepared’ in this way, to live happy and to die happy – stick to your Scout promise always – even after you have ceased to be a boy.”

Rules of Conduct – From the Pen of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson wrote reams of good advice, important political philosophy, the Declaration of Independence, and many other things (which is why we know so much about him).  To some of his younger relations he sent his favorite “Rules of Conduct” to help the people he cared for better and more insightful humans.  These thoughts evolved over time so versions vary slightly depending upon the source.  Here is a facsimile of the ten point “rules” with a slightly different version spelled out below.

Thomas Jefferson's Advice.

Thomas Jefferson’s Advice.

  1. Never put off to tomorrow what you can do to-day.
  2. Never trouble another with what you can do yourself.
  3. Never spend your money before you have it.
  4. Never buy a thing you do not want, because it is cheap, it will be dear to you.
  5. Take care of your cents: Dollars will take care of themselves.
  6. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  7. We never repent of having eat too little.
  8. Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.
  9. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
  10. Take things always by their smooth handle.
  11. Think as you please, and so let others, and you will have no disputes.
  12. When angry, count 10 before you speak; if very angry, 100.
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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Peale, 1791.

Despite some obvious flaws that glare in the light historic hindsight, Jefferson was steeped in classical philosophy and was a great thinker in his own right.  If we all could live by these rules the world would be a better place.

And finally, while providing an outline for his daughters’ education he suggested while he was away on business:

“With respect to the distribution of your time, the following is what I should approve:

From 8. to 10. o’clock practise music.
From 10. to 1. dance one day and draw another.
From 1. to 2. draw on the day you dance, and write a letter next day.
From 3. to 4. read French.
From 4. to 5. exercise yourself in music.
From 5. till bedtime, read English, write, &c.

..I expect you will write me by every post. Inform me what books you read, what tunes you learn, and inclose me your best copy of every lesson in drawing. Write also one letter a week either to your Aunt Eppes, your Aunt Skipworth, your Aunt Carr, or the little lady from whom I now enclose a letter. . . . Take care that you never spell a word wrong.  Always before you write a word, consider how it is spelt, and, if you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well…

If you love me, then strive to be good under every situation and to all living creatures, and to acquire those accomplishments which I have put in your power, and which will go far towards ensuring you the warmest love of your affectionate father,

Th. Jefferson”


He was known, like most of us, as a far-from-perfect father but his advice was sound.  Three hours of music per day, be good to all living creatures, draw, dance, and read. Obviously, this advice applies to the wealthy and elite who do not toil all day but even in the modern world there are worse ways to spend an idle day.

It sounds like a wise path.

Escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane…

This thought feels more pertinent than ever right now.    Instead of just finding faults in others,  I think it wise to examine who else stands on the side you are on.  Are these the people you want to be?

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.  ~Marcus Aurelius

Creating Every Day

Make something with your hands every day, some wisdom from Mahatma Gandhi.  It has been my goal for a long time now to follow this creed and it makes me happy nearly every day; even if it is something small, it is a small victory.

Its a tragedy of the first magnitude that millions of people have ceased to use their hands as hands. Nature has bestowed upon us this great gift which is our hands. If the craze for machinery methods continues, it is highly likely that a time will come when we shall be so incapacitated and weak that we shall begin to curse ourselves for having forgotten the use of the living machines given to us by God.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Lest we forget what makes us human.

Henry David Thoreau, “Woods Burner”

Here’s an interesting article about Thoreau’s early career and the incident that may have been a catalyst for his move out of town into the woods nearby.  As it happened a year before the Walden experiment, it may have had some bearing on the idea.

From the Boston Globe:

On April 30, 1844, Thoreau started a blaze in the Concord Woods, scorching a 300-acre swath of earth between Fair Haven Bay and Concord. The fire was an accident, but the destruction of valuable woodland, the loss of firewood and lumber, and the narrowly avoided catastrophe that almost befell Concord itself angered the local residents and nearly ruined Thoreau’s reputation. For years afterward, Thoreau could hardly walk the streets of his hometown without hearing the epithet “woods burner.”

…at the end of April, Thoreau went boating with his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar. They caught a mess of fish and Thoreau built a fire in a tree stump near the water’s edge to cook a chowder. The winds were strong and the woods were exceptionally dry from near-drought conditions. The fire leapt from the stump, into the dry grass, and then rushed toward the trees.

Thoreau and Hoar tried to extinguish the flames on their own, stomping in the burning grass and beating the flames with a board from their boat. But once the fire reached the trees, they knew there was no stopping it without help. Hoar set out for Concord in the boat, and Henry ran through the woods ahead of the flames, seeking help nearby. He encountered one farmer who refused to help him, because he thought the fire was “none of his stuff.” Thoreau ran on, eventually encountering an owner of the woods then ablaze. The man ran to Concord to summon the town, and Thoreau, exhausted, climbed to the top of Fair Haven Hill to wait for help and watch the woods burn.

A few months after the fire, Emerson purchased a plot of land at Walden Pond in order to protect it from woodcutters. And in March of the following year, Channing wrote to Thoreau, urging him to go to Emerson’s plot at Walden and begin the “grand process of devouring yourself alive.” Thoreau moved to Walden four months later. Perhaps he sought refuge from the angry people of Concord, perhaps he felt compelled to atone, somehow, for his offence, or perhaps the fire awoke him to the fragility of life: nature’s, man’s, his own.

Years before the fire, Thoreau wrote in his journal, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” And later in “Walden” he wrote that he came to the woods because he did not want to die having never lived. Perhaps this keen sense of urgency – the impulse to live the life he has imagined before it is too late – derives in part from Thoreau’s having witnessed how quickly an unthinking act can turn tragic.

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There is some interesting history I was not familiar with until a few years ago.  Here’s the link to the full article at the Boston Globe.

A shiftless, bookish fellow, who worked well with his hands but without much career direction or ambition to take the easy path.  Sounds like a familiar story.