“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! 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 thumb-nail.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden
This bit has grown in relevance, don’t you think? Have you ever had that kind of day, where you do 1,001 things and accomplish nothing, or at least nothing that seems to amount to much?
At the same time, Henry’s advice seems less achievable than ever. “Let your affairs be as two or three….” Welcome to the twenty-first century, Henry!
But I think we tend to underestimate the complexity of life in earlier times, when people had to master a multitude of skills that are entirely unknown to us today, and when everything involved a great deal more physical labor than we think possible. And of course human relations were no less complex:
“In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds.”
For a landsman, Thoreau could throw around nautical metaphors as well as any New Englander. But to the point: How can you do what he recommends, short of going off to live by yourself in the woods? What if you have a family to support?
“Simplify, simplify,” Henry says. No matter how far your life is from Henry’s ideal of accounts on a thumbnail, there are probably things that can be thrown out or left undone. To invoke another seafaring analogy, his words are more of a compass than a detailed nautical chart.
(About “A Year in Walden”)