The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (Economy) Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is talking about the race of men that are born into an ideal that one must work and toil the best parts of his life away in order obtain the trappings of success.  I think this is one of the most important sentences in Walden and resonated with me as I read it while in the midst of a career crisis – 15 years into a career that I realized I hated.  While I don’t agree with everything in Walden, Thoreau is right that if we allow ourselves to  get sucked into the trappings disguised as luxuries, we will toil in desperation, worried about keeping that life going and thereby limiting our choices when by fate (bad economy) or by design (unhappiness) our current jobs are no longer an option.  By simplifying we open avenues that we never knew existed and allow us to sing in ways we never before considered.

I will quote a lot from Thoreau, after all he did go into the woods and idealized the quintessential simple life in Walden.   We can learn a lot from his experience but we should also remember that his extremism, while a goal, isn’t always obtainable.  Thoreau enjoyed a luxury most of us don’t have – friends that tolerated his philisophical minimalism, in the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson who owned a home in Concord Massachusetts in which Thoreau often lived and the land on Walden Pond on which Thoreau built his famous cabin in the woods.

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The art of saying “No”

November 17, 2008

This lesson was hardest for me.  I hate saying no.  I am a doer, I get a charge out of helping people so when a call would come across for help, I would volunteer and then think “why did I do that?”.  Finally, my health forced me into a semi-recluse state.  In order to heal myself, I had to stop and let myself just be.  I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed and get my son to school – a task that my husband took on – much less be there for people totally unconnected to me. 

I am better now, after a few years of seclusion, delving into both alternative and traditional western medicine, and improving diet and exercise.  But during that time, I learned a valuable lesson.  The fine art of saying “no”.

Over the years I have been a beacon at my son’s school from preschool to elementary and at my former church.  I was over-committing with the PTA, volunteering to fill in when an officer vacated the post due to her own overcommitments, volunteering every week on a reading program, helping during field trips and class events, volunteering to feed the homeless, being on an executive board at my son’s preschool and at our church, on top of working full time and starting a new business. 

After taking a step back I can see far more clearly that that the more I try to do, the less I do well and the less I am able to truly fulfill my commitments.   I think this is universally true.  We would do better to sign up for less and commit to those projects 100% rather than spreading ourselves so thin we do many things but we do them poorly.   I am not advocating anti-volunteerism.  Just sane volunteering.

This past weekend was a great test for me and my family.  My family travelled to a neighboring city (well neighboring for Texas which is actually hours away) for a concert.   We planned our time well.  Our schedule, while busy, built in time for rest.  Our plans included meeting up with a friend from high school for dinner on Friday night, visiting an Ancient Egyptian/King Tut artifacts exhibit on Saturday morning, attending a rock concert on Saturday evening and visiting a museum on Sunday morning before heading home.  My in laws ended up in the same city, at the same time.  While we had Saturday afternoon free, my husband held firm that we were not going to plan anything with them as we would be seeing them for an extended trip at Christmas.  I felt a twing of guilt, afterall they don’t get to see their grandson very often, but my husband stood firm and for that I thank him.  So Saturday afternoon was spent lounging by the hotel indoor pool, napping and watching television to recharge our batteries for the concert and the museum on Sunday.   All went well and we came home tired but happy and relatively unstressed.  And we did see them briefly on Sunday while waiting for the museum to open. 

We could have easily gave in to the guilt of them being, normally, six hours away and not seeing them very often and spent Saturday visiting and shopping with them instead of resting but it would have made the remainder of our trip miserable.  We would have been tired at the concert Saturday night and probably would have opted to skip the Sunday museum in favor of just coming home and collapsing.

Toss the guilt, guilt is a useless exercise anyway, and choose one thing to say “no” to this week.  Whether it is the 10th child birthday party for your child’s classmates, someone visiting when it really isn’t a good time, the school desperately seeking volunteers for some project and take that time to rest, read, really look at your family or do anything that truly nurtures your spirit.  You may find you are far more able to fulfill your existing commitments.