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To Live Deliberately: Thoreau’s Philosophy Remains Relevant

If today is my last breath, I sucked all the marrow out of life.

Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash
Source: Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash

Let’s take a moment to consider the words of one of America’s most prominent and esoteric philosophers, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is best known as a New England Transcendentalist who spent the years 1845-1847 living on the outskirts of society in a small cabin in the woods by the side of Walden Pond. He called this period of his life an experiment of intentional living.

In a chapter of the resulting work, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, titled “Where I Lived, And What I Lived For,” Thoreau writes this famous paragraph:

"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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

There is great wisdom in Thoreau’s purpose here, and I think it’s very useful to ask ourselves this question: What would our lives be like if we sucked all the marrow out of life? In other words, what would it mean for us to live life to the fullest capacity that we are able?

If Thoreau’s quote sounds familiar, it may be from watching the film Dead Poets Society, a movie with deep wisdom. The film is about young men at a boarding school as they prepare to do good in the world because they have the privilege to bring about change. Their English teacher, played by Robin Williams, tries to convince them that they should live life well now instead of believing that they will find happiness after they reach certain goals. Part of his argument is conveyed by quoting this famous passage from Thoreau.

Sucking the marrow out of life sounds simple enough, but as a matter of fact, it may be the most difficult thing that we could ever do. But it actually is as simple as it sounds — though “simple” is not quite the same thing as “easy.”

I can think of three barriers that often keep us from living our best lives.

  • Desire for things. We are constantly led to believe that things will make us happy, and so we become willing to sacrifice so much to attain the physical objects of our desire.
  • Another factor that can stand in the way of our happiness is the shadow of addiction in our lives. This addiction may be to drugs or to other potent forces, like food, sex, or substances.
  • Another factor that keeps us from getting the most out of life is our desire for approval and fame. In the process of always looking for fame and glory, there is the danger that we will stop living. In order to seek approval from others, we fail to find a sense of approval within our own spirit.

There are many other barriers to sucking out all the marrow of life, and most of them, like the three I mentioned, are barriers that we erect in our own life path. But if we are wise, we realize that these barriers lead to pain and suffering.

If today we do decide that it is our sincere desire to suck the marrow out of life, what should our first step be? I think it lies in realizing that we have undergone many, many years of conditioning ourselves not to put our life’s happiness first. But when we become aware that we are missing so much out of life, we can decide that we want to make changes.

Our best move is to start small. When we get home from work at the end of the day, for instance, we can bypass the television or our handheld devices and head outdoors, where we can just sit and listen to the sounds of nature. If we are having a meal, whether a sumptuous spread or a modest supper, it is always within our power to take it slowly and really feel, taste, and savor the food before us.

We all have a lot of habits in place. Few of us can easily do like Henry David Thoreau and get away from it all in the wilderness. But we can make small changes, every single day. We can leave our office to go outside and enjoy our lunch in the sun. We can take a longer vacation without pay, just to enjoy our lives. We can even trade in a showplace of a home for a more modest, affordable one, so we can spend less of our time working ourselves to death.

With time, we can create an environment that best allows us to suck all of the marrow out of life. This is possible for any of us, if only we commit to it, work toward it, and really make it our goal.

When living our best life is our goal, we will find little steps along the way that will truly be exquisite, and we’ll keep having more and more of them. Ultimately, with enough of these beautiful moments, when we reach the end of our time in this body, we'll have lived a beautiful life.

If today were the day you took your last breath, would you be able to say that you sucked all of the marrow out of your life? If so, congratulations on a life well-lived. If not, at least metaphorically, isn’t it time to go to the woods and live deliberately?

If today is my last breath, I sucked all the marrow out of life.