Life Without Regret: Thoreau on “The Real Business of Life”

article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Will

Life is one thing that, generally speaking, we don’t want to screw up.

It’s OK to screw up at certain things.

Dancing, for example.

Half the fun of dancing is busting some moves, looking like an idiot, but not caring and doing it anyway.

But life itself? Your life?

That’s one thing you don’t want to screw up.

OK, yes. But…this could get overwhelming, fast. After all, how do you even get your arms around that? Is it even possible to “screw up” at life itself? What does that even mean?

Let’s go to the proverbial “deathbed regret.”

The basic idea:

Let’s imagine someone in their 90s. Let’s call him Horace. Horace is lying in his bed one afternoon. Suddenly, he feels it coming. He knows that pretty soon, maybe in the next two or three hours, he’s going to be taking his last few breaths.

He pauses. He has some time to look back on it all. He reflects on everything – the whole shebang, as much as they can. And he thinks…

“Whoops! Boy, I really screwed that up! Wow! Totally whiffed it!”

That’s one scenario.

The other, of course, is the opposite: the same bed, the same moment of reflection…but this time, Horace is bathing in a glow of triumph.

Let’s plant these two images like flags to mark both extremes: “glow of triumph” on one side, and “whoops!” on the other.

How do you measure a life well-lived?

This yardstick – the “deathbed reflection test” – isn’t perfect.

It might not even be the best way we have to measure a life (a good conversation for another time).

But let’s assume that that moment, if we get one, is a moment of clarity. That we see things closer to the way they actually are, instead of fogged-out, blurry and distorted. Let’s assume that our view at that moment is a clear one, from a seat at the 50-yard line, instead of the confused and rushed glimpses we have now, on the field.

So let’s say this test – the deathbed reflection – will do the job for now – the “job” of conveying the core idea of a “life well-lived” verses the opposite.

That “opposite” – the “Whoops!” version – could look something like a wasted opportunity. The girl you could have talked to, but didn’t. The invitation you could have accepted, but turned down. The adventure you could have embarked on, but decided to play it safe.

- except of course, what we’re talking about here isn’t a single opportunity. It’s an entire life.

It’s an existential riddle we all have to answer.

From right now, we each might have, say, sixty or eighty years or so, at most, if we’re lucky, before we each face our own Deathbed Reflection Test, dance the mortal coil shuffle and take the Dirt Nap.

So, if that’s a test…how do you “study”?

So, what should we do before then? How should we spend the time?

How do we live in a way that we won’t have regrets?

When it’s our turn to leave it all behind and face the truth, how do we increase our odds for a nice warm bath in the “glow of triumph”?

One guy grabbed this problem with both hands and didn’t let go.

He took it seriously enough to stop what he was doing, and just walk away – literally – from “normal life.” He went into the woods, in a tiny cabin, mostly alone, and just worked on it. For about two years.

He didn’t even take a cell phone.

(Of course, it was over a century ago. But still. He was serious.)

Anyway, what he worked out there (and after, and what he spent the rest of his life perfecting, until his death at 44), were some illuminating articulations of the problem, and serious insights into potential solutions.

Some folks quibble with his methods, of course, and sometimes seem to miss the point entirely.

But what that guy – Henry David Thoreau – worked out in that little cabin eventually influenced such luminaries as Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and others – so we’re in good company here. Walden has been heralded as one of the greatest works in American literature, while other works (Life Without Principle, Civil Disobedience, etc) can at times, in their own ways, cut even deeper.

So, if you’re interested in this stuff, there are probably worse places to start.

But, really: can a guy who lived alone in the woods for two years seriously offer anything to us today?


What problems did he work on, and how did he work on them? And what answers did he arrive at? And how can we apply those insights to our own lives?

Let’s explore.

One key in life isn't just solving problems, but figuring out which problems to solve.

Thoreau, it seems, worked on the right problems.

Some folks have something to say, but don’t know how to say it well. Others know how to say things well, but don’t really have much to say. Thoreau had both. And that makes him a rare bird. He didn’t just work on problems. From what we can tell, he worked on the right problems.

Philosophy begins in wonder, as Plato said. And Thoreau seemed to start there: a basic question about life itself: what it is, and why, and what it’s all about.

In his words:

Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.
I was thinking, accidentally, of my own unsatisfactory life, doing as others do…
It is not enough to be busy. The question is: what are we busy about?
The ways in which most men…live, are mere makeshifts, and a shirking of the real business of life – chiefly because they do not know, but partly because they do not mean, any better.

So then, what is “the real business of life”?

And why do most folks seem to shirk it?

The basic question: what is life about, and how do we live it?

Here is the classic passage where he really digs deep to articulate the problem. Or, as he might say, to really “drive it into a corner” and force it to give up its secrets:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

This seems fundamental, like we’ve struck some kind of invisible bedrock. From here, you can circle it, look at it from different angles, and say it in different ways, but you can’t get any deeper.

To “discover that (you) had not lived.”

To drill down into just this phrase: what does it mean to “not live” while you’re alive?

These few words seem to contain the seed of a key insight: that life can be about more than mere physical survival. It’s possible to be alive without really living.

If this is true, it means there’s an aspect of life that’s distinct and separate from mere survival. It points to, for lack of better words, a higher level of living.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world.
most people exist, that is all.
- Oscar Wilde

“All men die,
but not all men really live.”
- William Wallace

He continues:

I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

With this basic insight in place – the difference between merely surviving and living – he works to clarify that difference. And in this – trigger warning! – he doesn’t coddle.

A lot of folks seem to whiff the ball when it comes to life.

Thoreau seemed to observe that (along with Buddha and many others) that…well, life has a lot of suffering in it. (You could even say that “life is utter hell.”)

And that’s a problem.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
We do not live for idle amusement.

It seems the thought that most folks come to their conclusions about life prematurely.

For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil of or God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

The issue doesn’t seem to be that not that they’re wrong, necessarily, but that they’re skipped to the back-of-the-book answers without working out the math for themselves. And the key is often found in working out the math.

To paraphrase an earlier passage: the ways in which most men live are a shirking of the real business of life. Which brings us back to the question: what is the “real business of life”?

If that’s “whiffing the ball…”

What does “hitting the ball” look like?

Is Thoreau just being critical? Does he offer a positive, constructive solution?

He does.

But the first order is along the lines of “first, do no harm.” Meaning, the first order of business is via negativa, or backing away from the wrong.

So, back away from what, exactly?

One clear answer: back away from getting immersed in distractions, being swallowed by a swarm of details and trivia, and frittering ourselves away on inconsequential nonsense.

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.
The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.
Our life is frittered away by detail.
Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life cases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

This can also be seen as a criticism of the seemingly sensible financial advice to work hard during your life so you can save for retirement:

This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it…

(Of course, Henry wasn’t merely doling out financial advice, or disparaging it. What he’s working against is postponing the problem of life until your golden years.)

Much of this can be said in one word: simplify.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

But if we’ve simplified our affairs, and have achieved some open spaces where we have freedom to think and choose…what then?

We should aim higher.

Thoreau observes that folks often aim too low in life.

They aim for mere creature comforts. They settle for “idle pleasures.” They strive for mere survival instead of reaching for more valuable treasure.

In the long run, we only hit what we aim at. Therefore, thought they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.
Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times, Read the Eternities.
The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten.
When we want culture more than potatoes, and illumination more than sugar-plums, then the great resources of a world are taxed and drawn out, and the result, or staple production, is…men – those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers.
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

But what is this “higher terrain,” and what direction is it located?

The terrain to explore is our own nature.

Thoreau sees value in living according to “our nature.”

If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; And so does a man.

But what is that “nature” that we should live according to?

I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.

Thoreau clearly appreciated nature itself - that is, outdoor wilderness. Yet he didn’t stop there, at mere nature-worship, trees for the sake of trees. Like his buddy Emerson, he was called a “Transcendentalist,” implying an inclusion of nature, but also something beyond.

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

Theologians might describe this “within and beyond” as both “immanent” and “transcendent.”

But if that nature seems to be, among other things, dual, or two-pronged (both “under our feet” and “over our heads,”) then how do we “live according to it”?

He seems to indicate that it’s something we should explore, like adventurers discovering new terrain.

In a sense, to go hunting for priceless treasure.

The real riches of life are within: “Know Thyself.”

He quotes an eastern sage:

“Confucius said, "To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

In regards to what we should know, exactly, there is one thing above all: we should know ourselves.

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines or rather indicates, his fate.

“Whatever is not conscious
Will be experienced as fate.”
- Carl Jung

He refers to the river rising outside us as echoing the swell of life rising within us…

The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands…

He mentions scouting the “continents and seas” and unexplored oceans within ourselves…

What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific of one's being alone.

And he uses a story of gold-miners to illustrate what kind of “gold” – real gold – is most worth mining:

After reading Howitt’s account of the Australian gold diggings one evening, I had in my mind’s eye, all night, the numerous valleys, with their streams, all cut up with foul pits, from ten to one hundred feet deep, and half a dozen feet across, as close as they can be dug, and partly filled with water – the locality to which men furiously rush to probe for their fortunes – uncertain where they shall break ground – not knowing but the gold is under their camp itself – sometimes digging one hundred and sixty feet before they strike the vein, or then missing it by a foot – turned into demons, and regardless of each others’ rights, in their thirst for riches – whole valleys, for thirty miles, suddenly honeycombed by the pits of the miners, so that even hundreds are drowned in them – standing in water, and covered with mud and clay, they work night and day, dying of exposure and disease. Having read this, and partly forgotten it, I was thinking, accidentally, of my own unsatisfactory life, doing as others do; and with that vision of the diggings still before me, I asked myself why I might not be washing some gold daily, though it were only the finest particles – why I might not sink a shaft down to the gold within me, and work that mine. There is a Ballarat, a Bendigo for you…

To sink a shaft within ourselves, and work that mine…is that where we can find the real gold in this world?

He seems to say so. He points out what could be a strange observation about life: that we rush out in the world – say, to California or Australia – in search of physical gold, while ”the true lead” is within us, right under our noses.

Men rush to California and Australia as if the true gold were to be found in that direction; but that is to go to the very opposite extreme to where it lies. They go prospecting farther and farther away from the true lead, and are most unfortunate when they think themselves most successful. Is not our native soil auriferous? Does not a stream from the golden mountains flow through our native valley?

So the real business of life is…

…to awaken, to know ourselves, to ripen and actualize and give birth to some kind of seed that’s somewhere within us?

Is that the aim of all this?

Here, he is explicit:

To be awake is to be alive.

Throughout Walden, he repeats awakening as an important theme.

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake…
Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life.

He discusses what could be described as “sleepwalking through life.”

Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering?
The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.

He often refers, as he does above – and in some cases in capital letters – to a sleeping faculty that we all seem to have within us, like an unsprouted seed. He calls it “genius,” or “Genius.”

Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly-acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air – to a higher life than we fell asleep from…
If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies…No man ever followed his genius till it misled him.
Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven.

This “genius” might be understood as a kind of seed within each of us, that with the right kind of inner light and water, can grow.

- grow, like a bug in a table, hidden for decades.

Every one has heard the story…of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts, - from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness…maybe unexpectedly come forth…to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!

But if there is something like this, what can we do about it? What’s the inner water and light?

Is this something at all in our control, or do we need to just step aside and let nature do the work?

Thoreau seems to indicate that it’s up to us. In fact, that it’s an art.

It’s a “conscious endeavor” in pursuit of the “highest of arts.”

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

In the above passage, he offers himself as a witness to testify. He made himself his own lab-rat. “I tried this, and it worked.” “I learned this…by my experiment.”

So we’re free, of course, to run our own experiments, and to see what results we get.

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far 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 arts.”

But if we undertake this labor…what is the fruit of it? What does it get us? And is it worth it?

Maybe the answer here can come from a mosquito.

The fruit of all this is the transformation of our ordinary experience.

A mosquito.

What could be more mundane, annoying, unimportant?

We often see life as a series of mosquitoes.

Annoyances, unpleasantries, mere obstacles to the “good stuff.” Our everyday life is often spent pursuing an escape from these things. Folks typically long for a life without mosquitoes.

But Thoreau – having applied himself to the “conscious endeavor” he’s been trying to describe – reveals some of the fruits of this labor:

I was much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world. The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly-acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air – to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light. That man who does not believe that each day contain an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.

The result of the “conscious endeavor” isn’t an escape from mosquitoes. It’s a transformation of the way we experience them.

So, wait a minute: is it seriously, honestly, literally possible to experience a mosquito not as an annoyance, but as something closer to a symphony of joy?


And not just a mosquito, but everything else in life?

Well, Henry seems to say:

Yes. It is.

Epilogue: Those are a few sketches of some of Thoreau’s thoughts.

Hopefully we haven’t mangled them too badly. (If we did, well, that would be something we’d regret.)

So now…where does that leave us?

Well, we’ve made some progress.

We’ve defined the problem: the deathbed test, and we established the “whoops!” life of regrets verses the “glow of triumph” as markers. We’ve decided that it’s not merely a matter of surviving –keeping your physical body alive – but living. And what is “living”? Well, it has something to do with reaching for and existing on, for lack of better words, a “higher level.” But what does that mean? Well, it’s something in harmony with our own nature, if we get to know what that nature really is. OK, so what is that “nature”? Well, to know that, we have to know ourselves. And that means knowing whatever riches may lie within us, and exploring, mapping, and in a sense, mining those. And what this looks and feels like is something along the lines of “awakening,” which we can define as – at a minimum – the opposite of “sleepwalking through life.” And the fruit of all this is a transformation of the quality (not the content) of our everyday experience.

…all to the point to where even a mosquito can become a cause for joy.

And this “awakening” or transformation or “raising the level of” or whatever you want to call it is something within our deliberate control. It’s like a skill – like playing piano or learning to draw – that we can literally get better or worse at. It’s something we can practice.

These are rough maps, yes. Much of this is still a frontier that requires folks who are willing and able to experiment, explore, and experience new things. And much of these terrains are still largely uncharted (and these maps tend to get lost or forgotten pretty easily, apparently.)

But we’re working on it.

Here at LiveReal, we’re working to explore these terrains, and map them out, and dig a mine or two, and catch a fish or two.

Meaning, we’re working deliberately know ourselves, and figure out what kinds of gold and treasures and morning stars may lie within us, without sounding too cheesy about it.

We’re working to try to figure out what it really means to “live” instead of “merely exist,” and to “awaken” instead of sleepwalk through life. And that kind of stuff.

As for the “deliberate practice,” we call it “Inner Work.” You can call it whatever you want – but we’re working to do it, map this out, dig through it, understand it, apply it, test it, apply it again, figure out results, and explore some more.

So, can you seriously experience a mosquito as a “symphony of beauty”?

Well, as a certain guy we know might say…

Let’s see.

If you liked this, check out:

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