Is the overexamined life worth living? Three views from the playground.
ACROSS THE LITTLE river that defines the northernmost finger of Manhattan is the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. During the three years we lived there, I took graduate courses at Columbia and taught at five other colleges to earn diaper money. My family and I were immigrants from Brooklyn, 15 miles to the south. We moved because Riverdale was an easy commute to Midtown, where my wife, Judy, had a new job as a reporter at a leading business weekly. Our oldest daughter, Katie, was then a year old. I was with her from dawn until evening, when Judy?s return released me either to take or to teach an evening course downtown.
Of the classes I took, my favorite dealt with Henry David Thoreau. His classic 1854 work Walden told the story of a young man walking away from daily life to live as simply as possible in a shack he had built beside Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Many scholars have pointed out that Thoreau?s cabin was hardly isolated?he remained within walking distance of Concord?s town center and regularly walked to the homes of friends and family for hot meals. Still, I was tremendously drawn to the very idea of what Thoreau had done?to live deliberately, as he wrote, without any unwanted compromise with society. Struggling as I was to make my way through graduate school, earn money, help raise my daughter, and be a good husband, the notion of throwing it all over and walking off into the woods to live by my own compass was enticing.
Early in Walden, Thoreau wrote: ?Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the facetious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.? This struck a chord. As a happy dad but a tired one, I could see what he meant. But would taking up a solitary outpost in the woods tutor my soul in a way that the company of my wife and baby daughter could not? I had trouble believing that. Most days began for me with my wife waking me at about seven, as she dressed for work and headed out. Katie woke a bit later, and we?d have breakfast. Then we?d bundle up and head for a nearby park to play for an hour or so.
The park was a classic city spot?no grass, lots of concrete, a fierce steel jungle gym, and a sandbox bearing more resemblance to kitty litter than beach. There was another father I?d see every so often, a man who had completed a Ph.D. in Russian literature at Columbia, then spent years making a living painting houses. He had finally settled into a career in public-health research, working mostly from home. He knew Thoreau forward and backward, and we enjoyed talking about books. Eventually, a couple of moms joined our circle, and every few days I could look forward to engaging book talk at the playground.
Sooner or later, I asked nearly everyone I met in those days what I called ?the Thoreau question.? Thoreau had summed up his goals at Walden Pond with these words: ?I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.? My question was this: How would you go about living deliberately and confronting only the essential facts of life?
The Russian-literature expert stood with me on a cool fall day as his 3-year-old son wrote his name again and again on the park?s concrete floor and my daughter plucked the last petals of October flowers growing nearby. ?I am living deliberately,? he said. ?I love Thoreau, but I resent his implication that a man like me?living with my wife and my son as part of a family, going to work because I need the paycheck, going to the supermarket because the family needs food?that I?m a victim, that I?m a conformist. I know I?m making compromises day to day, but that?s only because my ambitions are greater than Thoreau?s were. Or not greater; maybe more connected. I?m part of a family, and he was not. That?s a choice I make every day; it?s deliberate, and it gives my life meaning. I couldn?t live alone on the edge of a pond without my family. That would not be sucking the marrow out of life for me; that would be hiding from my destiny. It would be a kind of exile.?
?An exile from what? Your family?? I asked.
?Well, yes, but more than that. An exile from my public life as a father. I like being known around here as Daniel?s father.?
?Is that enough for you? You don?t want more??
?I do want more, but not the way Thoreau wanted more. I want more ordinary things, not more self-indulgence. You know, Thoreau talks now and then about Eastern philosophy. Do you know what I think the most transcendent Zen approach to life is today? It?s a guy wearing a white shirt and tie, working at a desk, conforming to ordinary life with joy because he?s living the life that others live. To find transcendence from the ordinary is the highest spiritual place to be. The ordinary isn?t just the fish in the pond and the bugs on the ground that Thoreau writes about. The ordinary is what mothers do when they feed their kids. It?s walking the dog and living a domestic life with joy. That?s as rich and original as going off by yourself for two years, I think.?
One of the young mothers at the park, part of our informal book group, had a different take on things. ?For you,? she said to my friend, ?maybe that?s true, because you?re not just doing what you?re told, right? You?re breaking the mold by being home with your boy during the day. That?s not what most men do, but you?re doing it. It?s different; it?s more meaningful. But what if you were doing only what you were expected to do? What if you were being exactly what everyone in the world said you should be, and you had no sign of original thinking in anything you did??
It was a powerful question, in part because of what we knew about this woman, the wife of a lawyer who worked long hours and expected her to take care of their daughter without a thought for life beyond the playground. ?Well,? I asked her, ?what?s your answer to that question? Are you saying that there?s something wrong, or something missing, from what you?re doing with your life right now??
?No. I?m trying to say that what I do today is particularly hard for me because it has nothing to do with who I want to be. It?s not a statement. It?s not a lifestyle. It?s a commitment to Sue,? she said, looking at the little girl she was holding on her hip even as she calmly explained to us how limited our outlook was. ?Thoreau?s problem is that he can?t see beyond himself. I think you two guys have the same problem?it?s like you?re watching yourself in a movie, being the hero, the Lonely Guy at Walden Pond, or the Good Dad in the park, or the Suffering Husband when you?re cooking and cleaning and getting a taste of life at home. But it?s not about you.?
It was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky and very little street traffic to distract us from our conversation and the loveliness of being outside with our children. Her words brought us right back to where we were. She helped us pay attention to what we were doing, rather than the abstract notion of what it all meant.
?It means so much to be a parent,? she continued. ?But it?s all about the child, and about what you do today to help that child. When you push harder, and try to make it mean more, you lose a lot. I have plenty of ambitions, and maybe I should have spent today working on my investment portfolio or writing an opera, but I didn?t; I spent it with Sue because she?s the ?finer fruit??she?s the reward. There?s no such thing as living deliberately if you are part of a family.?
?Really?? said my friend. ?No such thing? I?m not living deliberately??
?You play your part, and if you do it well, you do it with dignity and love. But it?s not deliberate in the way I think Thoreau means. It?s not all about what you want this minute. You became a better person by not living deliberately every minute. You have to give that up to live with other people, or at least to live with real regard for other people. I think that?s the thing that Thoreau is missing. He?s missing regard for other people. He?s missing love. That?s the price you pay for being all alone in the woods.?
Then we sat with our kids, she opened a little bag of cream-filled cookies, and we enjoyed our own society under the blue sky.
From The Common Review (Fall 2002). Subscrip-tions: $12/yr. (4 issues) from 35 E. Wacker Dr., Suite 2300, Chicago, IL 60601. The Great Books Foundation makes a thoughtful foray into periodicals with the recent debut of The Common Review. In addition to bookish topics (Ralph Ellison?s Invisible Man at 50) and, of course, book reviews, the magazine displays a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic curiosity of the true literati. Recent articles look at melancholy, the tango, and how whites feel they?ve come up short in the new South Africa.