Every summer when I was young, my family would go tent-camping during my father’s vacation. As he got more vacation time, our trips would get longer and we could go farther. We ended up going almost everywhere in the US, camping each night. We didn’t go to the Deep South though. After my mother saw two drinking fountains in Williamsburg, Virginia — one marked “white” and the other “colored” — she refused to go farther south.
Even though we usually went someplace new every day, there was still plenty of time for me to just sit quietly in the woods or on the lakeshore or in the tall grass, away from my sister and brother, looking at the trees or water or sky, my mind wandering.
Camping, we all worked together to set up in the evening and pack up the next morning. We each took care of our own things: clothes, sleeping bag, air mattress. And each of us had jobs to do for the group, based on our abilities. I remember carrying water, digging a rain gutter around the tent, and when I got older taking down the tent and packing it up. One of my mother’s rules was that we were to leave each camping site in better shape than how we had found it.
Through the years we’ve all gotten busier and busier. There has been more and more pressure to Do, to Achieve. Our culture keeps pushing us faster and faster. We are constantly exhorted to buy, to have, to own, to do more and get more. There are t-shirts with “He who dies with the most toys wins” printed on them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports our aggregate productivity and it is interpreted as more is better. We buy bigger houses and bigger cars because bigger is better. (And the car companies market big cars more aggressively because the profit margin is much higher.) We pretend we don’t respect a rich man for his wealth, but we do — certainly in our culture he is deserving of more respect than someone of limited means who is kind and honest and loving. We mostly value measurable achievements.
Even though I am retired now, I’m usually too busy for much reflection. I don’t think to just sit quietly in the woods or on the lakeshore or in the tall grass. My mind races along and I am anxious to do something.
When Andrea retired she talked of shifting from a human doing to a human being. But she still does a lot of Doing. It’s hard to resist it. Perhaps this prolonged period of camping out at home has finally allowed us time to Be. This is a strange time to live through.
A friend posted this on Facebook:
We’ve slowed down. Now what? This time of resting and waiting has brought up some existential questions. What are we doing here, crowding onto this ball of dirt whizzing through the universe? What’s it all about, Alfie?
A cousin sent an essay about the work of Erich Fromm. (Thanks Linda.) In it Fromm is quoted as writing: “Man can be a slave even without being put in chains… The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free.”
So at least for Fromm, acquisition is not the meaning of life, nor is productivity, nor is doing. Perhaps it boils down to living life as we did when camping: We should just try to leave the world better than we had found it.