I recently finished reading a book, written by Helen and Scott Nearing in 1954, called “Living The Good Life”. This was my third reading of their book and each time I’ve been struck by their chosen lifestyle. The Nearings were well-known American back to the landers who wrote extensively about their experience living what they termed “the good life”. They were devoted to a lifestyle giving importance to work, on the one hand, and contemplation or play, on the other. Ideally, they aimed at a norm that divided most of a day’s waking hours into three blocks of four hours: “bread labor” (work directed toward meeting requirements of food, shelter, clothing, needed tools, and such); civic work (doing something of value for their community); and professional pursuits or recreation.
Helen and Scott began their simple life on an old farm in Vermont during the depths of the Great Depression. Due to the publication of their books, and to their open-house practices regarding guests, the Nearings’ approach was emulated by thousands of people who wanted a life that afforded play and contemplation in addition to work. Their off-grid lifestyle, the completion of 19 stone buildings built on their two different farms, and their strict vegan diets were certainly austere compared to my own lifestyle, but I find myself magically drawn to that whole ‘bread labor’ concept. Turns out Gandhi and Tolstoy promoted the concept too.
What do these four people have in common? They all yearned to find a deeper meaning to life, they all made major social impacts during their lifetimes, they all followed a discipline of non violence and they all managed to stay healthy and strong well beyond the modern-day retirement age of 65! Tolstoy ‘ran away’ from home at age 82, to ‘spend the last days of his life alone and in silence’, Scott Nearing decided at age 100 to simply stop eating so he would not be a burden on Helen or society, and Helen died at age 91 in a car crash, as she drove home from giving a talk on “Living the Good Life”. When Gandhi was assassinated at age 79, he lived very modestly in a self-sufficient community. Hmmm… might it be possible for me to also find deeper meaning in my own life by submitting 4 hours a day to bread labor, 4 hours to social activism and 4 hours to personal pursuits? Perhaps. But more importantly, might it be possible for a whole community of like-minded folks to find meaning, purpose, peace, resilience and health, as well as be able to provide for all of their basic needs, with such a guiding principle? I expect so, but I can’t find much evidence that such community building efforts work-oh, unless you count the monasteries, nunneries, the Findhorn Community in Scotland, the Shakers, Quakers, the Puritans, and last but not least, The Farm Community, located since the early 60’s right here in Tennessee; (this last group had undoubtedly read “Living the Good Life” too!) All of these successful communities use some form of bread labor as the basis for their chosen lifestyle. It seems that this old World War II poster was asking the whole United States to do their fair share of bread labor as well -lessons from the past are oftentimes worth relearning.
As I continue my journey of introspective work, I find that I want, like Thoreau, “… to live deliberately. I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.” I find that I get distracted from the goals and projects I want to accomplish-with the internet, phone calls, and my own wandering mind. Even though I’m retired, I often feel as though I’m working all the time! If I were to truly devote 4 hours to those things that I want to complete on any given day, leaving the distractions for a more leisurely block of time, I believe I can accomplish much more than I normally do, in a fraction of the time. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, don’t call me between 8 AM and noon -I’ll be doing my bread labor.
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