What Life Means to Me

by John Burroughs

Cosmopolitan Magazine, Volume 40, #6, April 1906

I have had a happy life, and there is not much of it I would change if I could live it over again. I think I was born under happy stars, with a keen sense of wonder, which has never left me, and which only becomes jaded a little now and then, and with no exaggerated notion of my own deserts. I have shared the common lot and have found it good enough for me. Unlucky is the man who is born with great expectations and who finds nothing in life quite up to their mark.

One of the best things a man can bring into the world with him is a natural humility of spirit. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit — a loving and susceptible heart. If he is going to be a reformer and stir things up, and slay the dragons, he needs other qualities more. But if he is going to get the most out of life in a worthy way, if he is going to enjoy the grand spectacle of the world from first to last, then he needs his life pitched in a low key and well attuned to common universal things. The strained, the loud, the farfetched, the frenzied — how lucky we are to escape them, and to be born with dispositions that cause us to flee from them!

I would gladly chant a paean for the world as a I find it. What a mighty, interesting place to live in! If I had my life to live over again, and had my choice of celestial abodes, I am sure I should take this planet and I should choose these men and women for my friends and companions. This great rolling sphere with its sky, its stars, its sunrises and sunsets, and with its outlook into infinity — what could be more desirable? What more satisfying? Garlanded by the seasons, embosomed in sidereal influences, thrilling with life, with a heart of fire and a garment of azure seas, and fruitful continents — one might ransack the heavens in vain for a better or a more picturesque abode. As Emerson says, it is "well worth the heart and pith of great men to subdue and enjoy it."

Oh, to share the great, sunny, joyous life of the earth! to be as happy as the birds are! as contented as the cattle on the hills! as the leaves of the trees that dance and rustle in the mind! as the waters that murmur and sparkle to the sea! To be able to see that the sin and sorrow and suffering of the world are a necessary part of the natural course of things, a phase of the law of growth and development that runs through the universe, bitter in its personal application, but illuminating when we look upon life as a whole! Without death and decay how could life go on? Without what we call sin (which is another name for imperfection) and the struggle consequent upon it, how could our development proceed? I know the waste, the delay, the suffering in the history of the race are appalling, but they only repeat the waste, the delay, the conflict through which the earth itself has gone and is still going and which finally issues in peace and tranquillity. Look at the grass, the flowers, the sweet serenity and repose of the fields — at what a price it has all been bought, of what a warring of the elements, of what overturnings, and pulverizings and shiftings of land and sea, and slow grindings of the mills of the gods of the foreworld it is all the outcome!

The agony of Russia at the present time, the fire and sword, the snapping of social and political ties, the chaos and destruction that seem imminent — what is it but a geologic upheaval, the price that must be paid for law and order o a permanent basis? We deplore the waste and the suffering but these things never can be eliminated from the processes of evolution. As individuals we can mitigate them; as races and nations we have to endure them. Waste, pain, delay — the gods smile at these things; so that the game goes on, that is enough. How many thousand centuries of darkness and horror lie between the man of today and the low animal ancestor from which he sprang! Who can picture the sufferings and the defeats! But here we are and all that is terrible past is forgotten, is, as it were, the soil under our feet.

Our fathers were cheered and sustained by a fair in special providences — that there was a supreme power that specially interested itself in man and his doings, and that had throughout the course of history turned the adverse currents in his favor. It is certain that all things have worked together for the final good of the race as a whole, otherwise it would have disappeared from the face of the earth. But Providence does things by wholesale. It is like the rain that falls upon the sea and the land alike, upon the just and the unjust, where it is needed and where it is not needed just the same; and the evolution of the life of the globe, including the life of man, has gone and still goes on, because, in the conflict of forces, the influences that favored life and forwarded it, have in the end triumphed. Providence is on our side, not by interfering here and there, and changing the natural course of events, such as the reversal or the suspension of the law of gravity, of fire or flood, or the breaking at any point of the chain of causation that binds all things together, but through the constitution of the universe, and our relations to it. The credit side of the account is finally in our favor. The credit side of the account with Russia will finally be in its favor, just as it has been with America, England, France, Germany.

As individuals we suffer defeat, injustice, pain, sorrow, premature death; multitudes perish to fertilize the soil that is to grow the bread of other multitudes; thousands but make a bridge of their dead bodies over which other thousands are to pass safely to some land of promise. The feeble, the idiotic, the deformed, seem to suffer injustice at the hands of their maker; there is no redress, no court of appeal for them; the verdict of natural law cannot be reversed. When the current of life shrinks in its channel there are causes for it and if these causes ceased to operate, the universe would go to pieces; but the individual whose measure, by reason of these causes, is only half full, pays the price of the sins or the shortcomings of others; his misfortune but vindicates the law upon which our lives are all strung as beads upon a thread.

In an orchard of apple trees some of the fruit is wormy, some scabbed, some dwarfed, from one cause and another; but nature approves of the worm and the fungus that makes the scab and of the aphid that makes the dwarf, just as sincerely as she approves of the perfect fruit. She holds the stakes of both sides; she wins, whoever loses. An insect stings a leaf or a stem, and instantly all the forces and fluids that were building the leaf turn to building a home for the young of the insect, the leaf is forgotten, and only the needs of the insect remembered, and we thus have the oak gall and the hickory gall and other like abnormalities. The cancer that is slowly eating a man up — it too is the result of a vital process just as much as is the life it is destroying. Contagion, infection, pestilence, illustrate the laws of life. One thing devours its host, the rust destroys the wheat or the oats, the vermin destroy the poultry, and so forth; still the game of life goes on and the best wins, if not today, then tomorrow, or in ten thousand years. In the meantime, struggle, pain, defeat, death, come in; we suffer, we sorrow, we appeal to the gods. But the gods smile and keep aloof, and the world goes blundering on because there are no other conditions of progress. Evil follows good as its shadow; it is inseparable from the constitution of things. It shades the picture, it affords the contrast, it gives the impetus. The good, the better, the best — these are defined to us and made to entice us by their opposites. We never fully attain them because our standards rise as we rise; what satisfied us yesterday will not satisfy us today. Peace, satisfaction, true repose, come only through effort, and then not for long. I love to recall Whitman's words, and to think how true they are both for nations and for individuals:

Now understand me well — it is provided in the essence of things, that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

I have drifted into deeper waters than I intended to when I set out. I meant to have kept nearer the shore. I have had, I say, a happy life. When I was a young man (twenty-five), I wrote a little poem called Waiting, which has had quite a history, and the burden of which is, "my own shall come to me." What my constitution demands, the friends, the helps, the fulfillments, the opportunities, I shall find somewhere, sometime. It was a statement of the old doctrine of the elective affinities. Those who are born to strife and contention find strife and contention ready at their hand; those who are born for gentleness and love find gentleness and love drawn to them. The naturally suspicious and distrustful find the world in conspiracy against them; the unkind, the hard-hearted see themselves in their fellows about them. The tone in which we speak to the world the world speaks to us. Give your best and you will get the best in return. Give in heaping measure and in heaping measure it shall be returned. We all get our due sooner or later, in one form or another. "Be not weary in well doing;" the reward will surely come, if not in worldly goods, then in inward satisfaction, grace of spirit, peace of mind.

All the best things of my life have come to me unsought, but I hope not unearned. That would contradict the principle of equity I have been illustrating. A man does not, in the long run, get wages he has not earned. What I mean is that most of the good things of my life — friends, travel, opportunity — have been unexpected. I do not feel that fortune has driven hard bargains with me. I am not a disappointed man. Blessed is he who expects little, but works as if he expected much. Sufficient unto the day is the good thereof. I have invested myself in the present moment, in the things near at hand, in the things that all may have on equal terms. If one sets one's heart on the exceptional, the far-off — on riches, fame, and power — the chances are he will be disappointed; he will waste his time seeking a short cut to these things. There is no short cut. For anything worth having one must pay the price, and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice — no paper currency, not promises to pay, but the gold of real service.

I am not decrying ambition, the aiming high, only there is no use aiming unless you are loaded, and it is the loading, and the kind of material to be used, that one is first to be solicitous about.

"Serene I fold my hands and wait;" but if I have waited one day, I have hustled the next. If I have had faith that my own would come to me, I have tried to make sure that it was my own, and not that of another. Waiting with me has been mainly a cheerful acquiescence in the order of the universe as I found it — a faith in the essential veracity of things. I have waited for the sun to rise and for the seasons to come I have waited for a chance to put in my oar. Which way to the currents of my being set? What do I love that is worthy and of good report? I will extend myself in this direction; I will annex this territory. I will not wait to see if this or that pays, if this or that notion draws the multitude. I will wait only till I can see my way clearly. In the meantime I will be clearing my eyes and training them to know the real values of life when they see them.

Waiting for someone else to do your work, for what you have not earned to come to you, is to murder time. Waiting for something to turn up is equally poor policy, unless you have already set the currents going that will cause a particular something to turn up. The farmer waits for his harvest after he has sown it. The sailor waits for a breeze after he has spread his sail. Much of life is taken up in waiting — fruitful waiting.

I have never sought wealth, I have been too much absorbed in enjoying the world about me. I had no talent for business anyhow — for the cutthroat competition that modern business for the most part it — and probably could not have attained wealth had I desired it. I dare not aver that I had really rather be cheated than to cheat, but I am quite sure that I could never knowingly overreach a man, and what chance of success could such a tenderfoot have in the conscienceless struggle for money that goes on in the business world? I am a fairly successful farmer and fruit grower. I love the soil, I love to see the crops grow and mature, but the marketing of them, the turning of them into money, brings my soul because of the sense of strife and competition that pervades the air of the market place. If one could afford to give one's fruit away, after he had grown it to perfection, to people who would be sure to appreciate it, that would be worth while and would leave no wounds. But that is what I have in a sense done with my intellectual products. I have not written one book for money (yes, one, and that was a failure); I have written them for love, and the modest sum they have brought me has left me no sting.

I look upon this craze for wealth that possesses nearly all classes in our time as one of the most lamentable spectacles the world has ever seen. The old prayer, "Give me neither poverty nor riches," is the only sane one. The grand mistake we make is in supposing that because a little money is a good thing, unlimited means is the sum of all good, or that our happiness will keep pace with the increase in our possessions. But such is not the case, because the number of things we can really make our own is limited. We cannot drink the ocean be we ever so thirsty. A cup of water from the spring is all we need. A friend of mine once said that if he outlived his wife he should put upon her tombstone, "Died of Things" — killed by the multitude of her possessions. The number of people who are thus killed is no doubt very great. When Thoreau found that the specimens and curiosities that had accumulated upon his mantlepiece needed dusting, he pitched them out of the window.

The massing of a great fortune is a perilous enterprise. The giving away of a great fortune is equally a perilous enterprise, not to the man who gives it — it ought to be salutary to him — but to his beneficiaries.

Very many of the great fortunes of our time have been accumulated by a process like that of turning all the streams into your private reservoir; they have caused a great many people somewhere to be short of water and have taken away the power of many busy, peaceful wheels. The ideal condition is an even distribution of wealth. When you try to give away your monstrous fortune, to open your dam, then danger begins, because you cannot return the waters to their natural channels. You must make new channels and you may do more harm than good. It never can go now where it would have gone. The wealth is in a measure redistributed, without enriching those from whom it originally came.

Beyond the point of a moderate competency, wealth is a burden. A man may possess a competency; great wealth possesses him. He is the victim. It fills him with unrest; it destroys or perverts his natural relations to his fellows; it corrupts his simplicity, it thrusts the false value of life before him; it gives him power which it is dangerous to exercise; it leads to self-indulgence; it hardens the heart; it fosters a false pride; to give it away is perilous; to keep it is to invite care and vexation of spirit. For a rich man to lead the simple life is about as hard as for a camel to go through the needle's eye. How many things stand between him and the simple open air of our common humanity! Marcus Aurelius thought that a man might be happy even in a palace; but it takes a Marcus Aurelius — a man whose simplicity of character is incorruptible — to be so. Yet I have no disposition to rail at wealth as such, though the penalties and dangers that attend it are very obvious. I never expect to see it go out of fashion. Its unequal distribution in all times, no doubt, results from natural causes.

Sooner or later things find their proper level, and the proper level of some things is on top. In the jostle and strife of this world the strong men, the master minds are bound to be on top. This is inevitable; the very laws of matter are on their side.

Not socialism, or any other "ism," can permanently equalize the fortunes of men. The strong will dominate, the weak must succumb. "To him that hath shall be given, from him that hath not shall be taken away that which he hath." Power draws power; inefficiency loses even that which it hath. To abolish poverty, to abolish wealth, we must first abolish the natural inequality among mankind. It is as if some men had longer arms than others and could reach the fruit on the tree of opportunity beyond the grasp of their competitors. Shall we cut off their arms? No, we can only shame them out of making hogs of themselves and of laying up greater stores than they can possibly use. In our day and country the golden fruit on the tree has been so abundant that the long-armed men have degenerated into wealth maniacs and have resorted to all manner of unfair means; they have trampled down the shorter-armed men and gained an advantage on their prostrate bodies. That is where the injustice comes in. Some of our monstrous trusts and combines, for instance, have killed competition by foul and underhanded means; they have crowded or thrust their competitors entirely away from the tree, or else have mounted up on their shoulders. They have resorted to the methods of the robber and assassin.

I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. When I depart from it evil results follow. I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living. Many persons know the luxury of a skin bath — a plunge in the pool or the wave unhampered by clothing. That is the simple life — direct and immediate contact with things, life with the false wrappings torn away — the fine house, the fine equipage, the expensive habits, all cut off. How free one feels, how good the elements taste, how close one gets to know them, how they fit one's body and one's soul! To see the fire that warms you, or better yet, to cut the wood that feeds the fire that warms you; to see the spring where the water bubbles up that slakes your thirst, and to dip your pail into it; to see the beams that are the stay of your four walls, and the timbers that uphold the roof that shelters you; to be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk, or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropic fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird's nest, or over a wild flower in spring — these are some of the rewards of the simple life.

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