To Live Deliberately

Henry David Thoreau explained his famous sojourn at Walden Pond with the words, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." The word "deliberately" means not only intentionally or on purpose; it also means with care and attention, and without hurry.

As Friends, we attempt to live by testimonies that require such deliberation from us. In accordance with Simplicity, we try to choose our material possessions and our activities with care, avoiding excess and waste. In accordance with Integrity, we reach toward wholeness and consistency, toward a deliberate harmony of intention and action. In accordance with Peace, we seek a gentle, patient, and respectful approach to others and to ourselves; we try to be attentive, not rushing to judgement, not being driven by our fears or frustrations.

Through all of our actions in the world we express our understanding of the meaning of our lives. Yet when we come to a point where we are no longer able to be doing as much—when we get sick, or exhausted, or very old—we may need to discover how to live our testimonies less through doing than through being. The challenges we face inwardly are just as powerful as those that we gave our efforts to when we were more active outwardly. Instead of working for social and political justice and peace in the face of great human suffering, we are seeking equanimity and generosity of spirit while encountering, perhaps, other forms of suffering and struggle within ourselves. "Living deliberately," both outwardly and inwardly, is essential to the well-being of this world, and to the wholeness of each individual over a lifetime.

When we find ourselves "in the woods" of a life-changing illness, we certainly have not gone there intentionally in the same sense that Henry David Thoreau went to the woods at Walden Pond. But our lives then may be more deliberate than they have ever been before. Our day-to-day experience of living must be slower, and it may require all of the care and attention that we have to give. There is some benefit to this deliberation, some essential meaning like that which Henry David Thoreau found, although it may come to us against our will or intent, through suffering and loss.

During times of illness, especially progressive illness that may eventually be fatal, many things that we have previously considered essential to our very identity may be called into question. Much of what we have been and known may no longer be available to us. Our ability to be of use in externally measurable ways may be diminished to the point where we no longer know who we are, or no longer believe we have anything to offer. When this occurs, we may feel that we are ready to die, and we may actually be ready to die, but in the time that remains, however long or short, we may also choose to seek new ways to live. A new way, now, amounts to a new self-definition—a new understanding of what is essential. Instead of offering the world our energy in action, we may now offer our simple presence, our attention, our deliberation.

In a sense, when we are ill, we find ourselves limited to a simple, bare cabin surrounded by forest. It is a cabin we have built for ourselves, out of the experiences, strengths, and knowledge we have accumulated—but it is unfurnished, or furnished with very little that is familiar to us. The comfortable armchairs of our material and professional successes will not fit here. We have no electricity for appliances, no extra energy to fuel our various commitments. The fat trunk full of our public costumes and our memories is too heavy to drag over the threshold. There is no space for the dining room table where our many friends and acquaintances would gather for meals.

Like Henry David Thoreau, we may have only one straight chair for ourselves, a second one "for company," a cot, a narrow desk, and a stove. A door and a window look out on the surrounding woods. We did not create this woodland, we did not bring it with us intentionally, but this is where we have come. And how will we live here? Deliberately, indeed.

When I say "we," I mean all of us, and I mean myself. After living with a form of cancer that weakened and sickened me over a period of years, I am well aware that any metaphor applied to the experience of illness or aging had better bear the weight not merely of challenges and limitations, but also of real suffering. This cabin in the woods can be a place to live fully, to encounter ourselves and find meaning in our difficulties—but it is also a place where we meet genuine loneliness, fear, misery, frustration, pain, humiliation, grief, boredom, disappointment, exhaustion, desperation, and dozens of other torments. For Henry David Thoreau, the experience of living at Walden Pond was a healthy one, an opportunity to simplify and clarify his life. Yet, at other times, he also knew pain and loss, another kind of "life in the woods" where he did his best to "live deliberately."

In the years since my own illness, I’ve worked closely with others who are ill or grieving, as a hospice volunteer and bereavement counselor. Most recently, I’ve begun a project called "Compass Points," which offers spiritual direction and support to those with life-threatening or life-changing illnesses and their caregivers. In this work there are two premises: first, that it is possible to find meaning in the midst of even the worst illness; and second, that the hardships of such illnesses are not to be underestimated.

What does it mean "to live deliberately"? Perhaps the answer is ultimately the same for all of us, but I’ll speak for myself. To me, living deliberately means looking directly at what is in front of me—at what is essential, unavoidable, evident. When I was sickest, I soon discovered that bitterness and longing for another life were a waste of the precious life that was present in this moment. I wanted to get well, wanted to heal—but healing did not mean always reaching toward a time when my symptoms might go away, or fearing (or wishing) that I might die. Healing meant seeking wholeness in each hour, and building my hope for any future health on the strong foundation of an immediate, moment-to-moment love and respect for the life I had.

Even in the moments when life seemed simply miserable, I found that my willingness to be present to the pain, to offer my care and attention even when I was afraid, could open up new meaning and a paradoxical joy. I found myself opening to others as I opened to the realities of my own experience. Compassion is a willingness to remain fully present in the face of suffering. When I do not flinch from experiencing my own pain, learning it, and knowing it, then I do not have to respond with "fight or flight" avoidance tactics when I encounter pain in others. I can stay; I can offer my whole attention and genuinely be of service.

Now that I am healthier, I continue to try to live deliberately, remembering, as much as possible, to attend to the life I have before me, within me, all around me. When I work with a client, my primary intention is to be present with that person as fully as possible. Can I listen with my whole attention and care? Can I wait through silences without withdrawing or intruding? Can I really be here with another human being, even when that human being is suffering? How can I allow whatever is happening to happen without judging, without trying to turn it into something else? When I’m with another person or only with myself, I ask questions. Not questions that require answers or blaze new trails, but questions that follow the path that is already there.

In times of illness, the possible directions may be reduced to a very few. The energy for pursuing any particular path is so limited that it is necessary to move slowly, taking small steps, conscious of every breath, noticing every change in the texture of the ground and the surroundings. The cabin of everyday experience is small and stark. The woods are close. But maybe there’s a trail leading from the doorway, sloping very gently downward, toward the shining water of the pond. It is possible to walk this way, or, if not to walk, then at least to look and see the reflected light between the trees, not too far off. Deliberately, slowly, and with close attention, I try to turn in that direction.

If I were listening to you, I would try to sense the clear, quiet place within you and see the view from there. Most of my questions are really asking, "What can you see from that window?"—and often, I ask the question after noticing where your gaze is going, following that direction, and looking, too. "What can we see from here?"

When our lives are busy and distracting there’s little time to live deliberately; to really listen; to take tiny, careful steps down a slow slope to the pond just for the sake of looking, breathing, being. Because we do have some control over most aspects of our daily lives when we are relatively young and healthy, we learn to depend on that control, learn to exercise it as if that will strengthen it. But, really, our control is limited, and finally, we do not make things happen, we only attend to their happening and give ourselves over to the situation or not. We can resist, and that resistance may be satisfying for a while, but when all resistance fails, as it ultimately will, where do we find our joy? What do we have to give? How do I live deliberately, so that when I come to die I will not "discover that I had not lived"?

For some kinds of pain there are solutions. For some kinds of problems, there are options. But for certain situations, certain pains and problems, nothing can be done. Finally, when we come to die, there is nothing to do, nothing to change. And yet, when there are no alternatives, when there is no control to be exercised, no resistance to be summoned up, then what is life? Just this.

It is possible to notice the pain, or the sadness, or the anger, or the exhaustion, and just let it be. Or to notice the joy, the smell of the air, the presence of another person, the beating of your heart. This is what life has been all along. The pain comes and goes; the joy comes and goes. The weather outside the window changes. And there is something to see, something to experience in itself, for itself, as long as it lasts. Then, if options appear again, if there are things to be done, we choose and we act as we can. Whether there is something that we can do or not, living deliberately means living fully.

As Henry David Thoreau was dying of tuberculosis at the age of 44, someone spoke to him about the nearness of his death and asked if he could see "the other shore." Thoreau replied, "One world at a time." Even in the midst of weakness and pain and grief, we may take each breath deliberately, experience this world simply as it comes to us, from the perspective of our limited lives. While we are here, this world is everything, and there is still time to inhabit it with all we have, with all we are.

Kirsten Backstrom

Kirsten Backstrom is a member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oreg. She is the author of a Pendle Hill Pamphlet, In Beauty: A Quaker Approach to End-of-Life Care.