By Arthur Gordon
One winter day several years ago I found myself having lunch at the seaside cottage of some friends, a couple in their 20s. The other guest was a retired college professor a marvelous old gentleman, still straight as a lance after seven decades of living. The four of us had planned a walk on the beach after lunch. But as gusts of wind shook the house and occasional pellets of sleet hissed against the windows, our hosts’ enthusiasm dwindled.
“Sorry,” said the wife “but nobody’s going to get me out in this weather.” “That’s right,” her husband agreed comfortably.”Why catch a cold when you can sit by a fire and watch the world go by on TV?”
We left them preparing to do just that. But when we came to our cars. I was astonished to see the professor open the trunk of his ancient sedan and take out an ax. “Lots of driftwood out there,” he said, gesturing toward the windswept beach. “think I’ll get a load for my fireplace.”
I stared at him.”You’re going to chop wood? On this sort of afternoon?” He gave me a quizzical look. “Why not?” he said as he set off across the dunes. “it’s better than practicing the deadly art of non-living isn’t it?” I watched him with the sudden odd feeling that something was curiously inverted in the proper order of things: two youngsters were content to sit by the fire; an old was striding off jauntily into an icy wind. “wait!” I heard myself calling “wait, I’m coming!”
A small episode, to be sure. We chopped some armfuls of wood. We got a bit wet , but not cold. There was a kind of exhilaration about it all, the ax blade biting into the weathered logs, the chips flying, the sea snarling in the background. But what really stuck in my mind was that phrase about the deadly art of non-living.
The professor had put his finger on one of the most insidious maladies of our time: the tendency in most of us to observe rather than act, avoid rather than participate; the tendency to give in to the sly negative voices that constantly counsel us to be careful, to be wary in our approach to this complicated thing called living.
I am always skeptical of claims that the world is getting worse. But in this one area at least where Americans are concerned, I think the claim may will be true: we are more inert than our ancestors, and cleverer at inventing excuses for indolence. Far from burning candles at both ends, more and more descendants of the pioneers seem reluctant even to light a match.
Part of the blame can be laid squarely on the doorstep of overprotective parents. In thousands of homes, well: meaning fathers and mothers blunt their children ‘s eagerness and sense of adventure with an endless barrage of don’t s: “Don’t climb that tree, you might fall out.” “No, you can’t camp out this weekend; it might rain. “the drive to live is a leaping blame in most children, but it can’t survive an endless succession of wet blankets.
Another reason for our watch-not-do attitude is an over-preoccupation with health that borders on national hypochondria. Our ancestors were mercifully free from such vapors and the somber statistics that produce them. But today, once you cross the threshold of the middle years, everywhere you look someone is separating himself from some activity or pleasure because someone else has convinced hi that giving it up is good for him.
And the disease of non-living can be progressive. A contemporary of mine who gave up tennis several years ago because he feared the game might be bad for his arteries has now taken to going to bed every night at nine o’clock. He says he needs he’s rest; and, to be fair, he does look remarkable rested. But you can’t help wondering what he plans to do with all the energy he’s conserving.
The march of science has handed us such bonuses in health and energy and life-span thet we should be living hugely, with enormous gusto and enjoyment, not tiptoeing through the years as if we were treading on eggs. For thousands of decades, man’s chief concern was simply how to survive. Now the crucial question has become not how to stay alive but what to do with a life that is practically guaranteed.
The old professor was right : too many of us do too little with it. Where will you find half the male population of the United States on any crisp Sunday afternoon in October or November? Hunting? Flying kites or model airplanes with the kids? Roaming the russet fields, tramping the flaming woods? Or sprawled in a darkened room watching 22 professional gladiator’s bang one another around on an electronic screen? By and large the silent watchers are solid citizens. They will discuss with genuine concern slugh national problems as riots, drug addiction, delinquency, Yet which, really, is the more urgent issue of our time: the lawless behavior of the few or the ever-increasing inertia of the many?
The whole thing hangs on series of decisions each of us is constantly called upon to make, decisions that spell the difference between living and non-living.
As a youngster I remember being given a solemn bit of advice supposed to apply to almost any situation: “When in doubt, don’t.” “Well, perhaps this cautious approach has occasional value as a brake on the impetuosity of youth. But its usefulness diminishes rapidly once you’re past 20. It can be dangerously habit-forming after 30, and after 40 it probably should be reversed altogether, becoming:” “When in doubt, do.” If you keep that formula in mind. The problems of non-living are not likely to become much of a threat.
On my desk lies a letter from a friend, a clergyman. “The trouble with most of us,” he writes, “is lethargy, absence of caring lack of involvement in life. To keep ourselves comfortable and well-fed and entertained seems to be all that matters. But the more successful we are at this the more entombed the soul becomes in solid immovable flesh we no longer heat the distant trumpet and go toward it; we listen to the pipes of pan and fall asleep.”
And he goes on wistfully: “How can I rouse my people make them yearn for something more than pleasant socially acceptable ways of escaping from life? How can I make them want to thrust forward into the unknown, into the world of testing and trusting their own spirit? How I wish I knew!”
There’s only one answer, really. Each of us must be willing at least sometimes to chop wood instead of sitting by the fire. Each of us must fight his own fight against the betrayal of life that comes from refusing to live it.
Every day, for every one of us some distant trumpet sounds but never too faint or too far for our answer to be: “Wait! I’m coming.