It was the other day. I was sitting in a ginkgo tree near Younker Hall, on the field. I was supposed to be reading Emerson, but there was a squirrel in the tree. It was holding some sort of nut. It started eating the nut, making scraping sounds with its teeth. It just sat on that branch, just a short distance from me, slowly cracking open and getting into that nut. I ended up reading the Emerson eventually, not that I liked it. (I vastly prefer Thoreau to Emerson, not least because it’s actually possible to read and make sense of Thoreau. Even when you’re fully awake, Emerson makes you want to go to bed.) As the day moved on, I biked around, and saw some more squirrels. I started thinking. I guess the squirrels weren’t so much a metaphor for anything I thought about as they were just a catalyst to get me thinking. I started off thinking about how they subsist just on the nuts that are out here. The college, like any place that’s built up, isn’t really an ideal ecological system, but the squirrels managed anyhow. So anyhow, from that I somehow figured out the way I can live my life and enjoy it all the time.
Previously, though I hadn’t really thought about it, I think I was subliminally dreading the course of life. How does it go? Go to school for seventeen years. Then get a job. Do that job for about forty years. In doing your job, you’re banking money so that you can eventually retire and enjoy the later years of your life doing whatever you want, although with perhaps diminished vigor, simply because you’re older. There are vacations and weekends and evenings that you can use to do stuff in the meantime, small breaks so that you don’t lose sight of what you’re aiming towards. In this life course, for about sixty-five years, you mostly put off doing what you want to do.
Sixty-five years is a lot of delaying gratification.
So, what’s the solution? I’ve decided to live my life how I want to even when I have a job. How do I want to live? For one thing, I don’t want to spend my days, weeks, months, and years all indoors. We don’t think about it often, but a building is a dead environment. We engineer the spaces we live in so that we’re the only thing that lives in them. Maybe it’s because we want to feel important. But as soon as you step outside, you’re in the middle of life; grass underfoot, trees rising overhead, even the soil full of life. I suppose it’s not actually going to kill you if you’re inside, but at the same time, isolating yourself so habitually – almost obsessively – is something I find deeply disturbing, and I have a suspicion that it runs opposite to human nature. If not in general, it certainly runs opposite to my human nature. I want to be part of the world. That doesn’t mean just sitting outside instead of inside when I do work that I have to do. Nor does it mean taking hikes every once in a while or even frequently. These are things that tourists do. As a citizen, I won’t live in the forest. I’ll live with it. Now, that sounds mystical, and perhaps, BJ, you’re flexing your fingers to warn me that I ought to be more careful about my life. Let me clarify. I will have a house. I mean, come on. I will also have a job. Obviously. I’ll get a house in a forest, preferably near a stream or, even better, a lake. But I won’t spend a whole lot of my time in it. Preferably, the majority of my time will be spent outside of it. What will I do? Well, you know how most people go to the grocery store for their groceries? What I would enjoy is to learn how we got our groceries before that. Very few people actually get their own food; most buy it from other people. I’ll hunt, fish, and collect. Now, from time to time, I’ll still go to stores; you can’t pick ginger snaps. But the stores will be something I could live without. Eventually. I’m not saying it’ll be instantaneous; it’ll take me years, probably, to become proficient in getting what I need from the outdoors. But that’s all right with me. I love learning new things, and I don’t think the forest will ever fail me for new things to learn. And, at the same time as I’m having so much fun outdoors, I’ll be saving money by dropping less of it back into the black hole of food bills and an endless supply of things (here I’m talking about living Thoreauvianly). Our civilization operates cyclically; we get money, but we always have to feed it back in almost instantly. By saving money, I can pay off my student loans quicker, pay off my house quicker, pay off my car1 quicker, and eventually just use it for anything I want to do: vacations, books, college educations if such a thing comes up. Not only will I have a life that I’ll enjoy every day, I’ll also be able to enjoy it more and more as I get rid of worries and obligations. If I work it right, I might even be able to retire early. My life will never suck; I will get up each day and look forward to how awesome it’s going to be.
That’s how I want to live. Now, other people may not be so hot into the forestry thing, and while I disagree with that personally, I respect it. I’d say in general the way to enjoy life is to think about what you would do if you were retired, and then figure out a way to do it without retiring first. Quit putting off enjoyment for when you’re old. Life is for you to enjoy, not to enjoy later. We don’t get that many days, after all; I intend to love every one of them.
Note that I have the added advantage that if civilization does collapse, I’ll be able to cope just fine, and if it doesn’t, I’ll be having fun without it.
Sometimes necessity dictates that you have to have a car, but it is another thing that I will use sparingly, giving vast preference to bicycles. ↩
File under: deep thoughts