Henry David Thoreau, Walden (the 150th Anniversary Edition)
A couple of years ago, a friend bought me the 150th Anniversary Edition of Walden – a text I hadn’t read since high school. While building his spartan but serviceable cabin in the woods, Thoreau does a cost-benefit analysis of home ownership, calculating that “an average house . . . costs perhaps eight hundred dollars, and to lay up this sum will take from ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life.”
The thing, as we were taught in law school, speaks for itself. Or as Thoreau put it, “the cost of a thing is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
This line stopped me dead in my tracks. Was this phrase more profound to me than the observation that “time is money” just because it appeared in 19th Century prose? Or had I simply lived too much of my life converting my own time into money, shaving hours into tenths, merging them weekly, monthly and yearly with my colleagues’ hours, converting the whole at year’s end into overhead, earnings, distributions and investments.
Whatever the reason, Thoreau’s calculus made me suddenly recognize that the sheer raw number of my actual yearly wage had become more important to me than the things it might allow me to purchase, or even to store up against potential future calamity. In all the getting and gathering, I thought, I may have lost the point of job, career, occupation.
And this has to do with mediation in what way?
I often quote Thoreau’s aphorism when parties reach impasse. It helps everyone make money transparent again. That money is the means to particular end, not an end in itself. That, even in this cynical age, most people would prefer a fair distribution of resources reached through compromise than total victory at all costs. This continues to mark my own experiences as a mediator, despite the fact that the justice survey is continuing to run 50-50 on the question, “would you prefer to win unfairly or lose fairly.”
So as strange as it might seem, I heartily recommend Walden as one of the tomes you tote to the beach this summer along with your soda pop, sandwiches, cole slaw and sun screen.