Life comes at us one day at a time. It’s a relentless fact that we cannot change.
But in one of the most celebrated passages from his book, Walden, Thoreau talks about mastering the art of waking up and living each day.
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn…I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is for more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”
This is a wonderful passage for reflection. I will only add a few questions.
Do you think that learning “to reawaken ourselves and keep ourselves awake” is an important part of our education in life?
If so, what are some ways to keep learning that? What does “reawakening ourselves” mean to you?
Do you think that affecting and enhancing the quality of each day’s experiences is the highest of the arts?
If so, what are some ways to practice that art? What resources do we have to help us in that?
What is the value of seeking to make each day a work of art?
When he lost the presidential election to Eisenhower in 1956, Adlai Stevenson spoke to his discouraged followers. One of the things he said that night was this:
“Be of good cheer. And remember, dear friends, what a wise man said—“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
Stevenson knew he couldn’t change the situation. Defeat is defeat.
But he could try to spare his followers some of the lingering bitterness of defeat.
It raises the question: What is the value of working to cultivate a “cheerful heart” even in the face of defeats, failures or setbacks?
What is the value of seeking to be a cheerful presence at home, at work, in the community?
Today, when we seem to hear so much bad news, is cheerfulness simply an old-fashioned notion? A forgotten antique gathering dust on the shelf?
Is cheerfulness just sticking our heads in the sand?
There is a kind of cheerfulness that’s fake, of course. We’re not talking about that.
But here’s one way to think about it: a person can choose whether to be a thermometer or a thermostat.
A thermometer simply reacts to the temperature in the environment; it tells you whether it’s hot or cold. But it doesn’t change anything.
A thermostat knows that the environment is “hot” or “cold.” It can read the situation. But then it responds by setting its own temperature—making things more comfortable for others in the room.
It’s easy, of course, to be cheerful in good times.
But the “thermostat” person cultivates an aware cheerfulness not in spite ofthe problems around us but because of them.
As someone has said: the best gift you give to the people in your life is a you that’s fun to be with.
Which gives new meaning to the words: “Be of good cheer.”
Ever feel like your to-do list is trying to do you in?
Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth century philosopher, theologian and mystic believed we should put another list alongside our to-do list: a “to-be” list. He wrote:
“People should think less about what they ought to do and more about what they ought to be. If only their living were good, their work would shine forth brightly.”
I think he’s right. And Hamlet was wrong. The question is not “To be or not to be.” The question is about how to be.
What happens when we take the question, “What do I need to do today?” and combine it with the question, “What sort of me, what sort of human being do I want to be today while I’m getting things done?”
The to-do list can help structure our days. But the to-be list can help bring a deeper meaning to our days.
The to-do list can bring stress. But the to-be list helps us grow as persons through the stresses and challenges.
The to-do list is relentless. You get up the next morning and it’s still there. The to-be list is centering: it provides a place where you can relax and just be yourself.
The to-do list is oriented to the future. The to-be list puts its weight down on the present—on being present today.
The to-do list deals with who, what, where, when and how of our days. But the to-be list points to a “why” for our days. As Nietsche said:
“He who has a big enough why for his life can deal with almost any how.”
The acting coach Konstantin Stanislavski famously said,
“Remember there are no small parts, only small actors.”
In other words, it’s not the size of the role you play that matters so much…it’s how much you bring to your role.
Is that true in life as well as on the stage?
Consider Dolores Dante, a waitress interviewed by Studs Terkel for his classic book, Working. Listen to the way she describes her job.
“I don’t give anything away. I just give myself…I’d get intoxicated with giving service. People would ask for me. I didn’t have enough tables…I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right. I get to be almost Oriental in the serving. I like it to look nice all the way. To be a waitress, it’s an art. I feel like a ballerina too. I have to go between those tables, between those chairs…It is a certain way I can go through a chair no one else can do. I do it with an air. If I drop a fork, there is a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I can do it. I’m on stage. I tell everyone I’m a waitress and I’m proud…Whatever you do, be professional…You hope everyone is satisfied. The night’s done, you’ve done your act. The curtains close.”
Who knows, some of the other waitresses may think she’s weird. But one thing you can say about Dolores: she’s enjoying herself. She’s not bored and she’s not boring!
And wouldn’t you like to have her for your waitress or your employee?
Dolores understands that important truth: the more of yourself you give to the roles you play, the more you get back.
She knows what happens when you bring something extraordinary to ordinary days and roles: you make your life a work of art.
Remember Etch A Sketch? If you messed up your drawing, you could just shake the toy and start fresh, with a clean slate.
The American poet and biographer George E. Woodberry believed that nature is trying to teach us to do the same thing with our lives every day:
“Always begin anew with the day, just as nature does; it is one of the sensible things that nature does.”
Every morning the quiet rising sun gently urges us:
Clear the slate. Start fresh. Begin anew.
As someone has said, “The gift of life only comes wrapped in one-day packages.”
Maybe there’s a reason why.