“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives. This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. … I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”
Henry David Thoreau reflected on the “infinite bustle” of life back in 1854 in “Life Without Principle”. I like to present that quote to students and ask when they think it was written. They are usually surprised at when it was written. Except perhaps for the use of the term locomotive, it sounds as if it could be contemporary. If the Transcendentalists were concerned that life was zooming by too quickly, what does that mean for us today? We live in a time that makes the 1850s seem comparatively sleepy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us in “The American Scholar” that it is important to reflect upon the moment in which we live. It can be difficult to have enough objective distance to read one’s own times. But, he writes, “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” Knowing what to do with it is the part of that statement that can penetrate the spirit. How can we know? Emerson would, I think, urge us to listen to our inner selves, to nature to hear the missive for our times.
Next week this nation celebrates the severing of ties with Great Britain in 1776. Thirteen fledgling colonies on the Atlantic ocean declaring independence from the constraints of empire was a revolutionary act. What actions are revolutionary in our times? In a time that is inundated with information, quietude is revolutionary. In a time when public reaction strikes like lightning, pausing to think slowly is revolutionary. In a time when 280 character responses are expected, writing deeply is revolutionary. In a time of infinite distraction, reflecting enough to truly “know thyself”, as Socrates advised, is revolutionary. We will never know “what to do with” our times, as Emerson wrote, if we don’t know ourselves.