It is a common misconception that Thoreau was a hermit. That when he went to “live deliberately and confront only the essentials of life” it was an act of seclusion.
His choice of furniture and its reported use is a direct contradiction of this.
Among the few possessions in the tiny cabin on Walden Pond, were three chairs. He said one was for solitude, two for friendship and three for society.
The use of one chair is obvious. It was an opportunity to sit, think, read, observe. It is about personal growth and discovery.
Two chairs were used when a single visitor passed by – which they did frequently. Here two people could share their problems, joys, sources of humor or insight. It is about the deepening growth of a bond between two people.
Three chairs sounds more complicated. The dynamic when more than two people come together is different. The conversation can be less intimate but more animated. Conversation can turn to the issues of the day, common concerns, shared values. These conversations have the benefit of growing the community.
When I consider our proverbial three chairs these days, I sometimes wonder if we actually have less furniture in our big homes than Thoreau had in his small cabin.
I do spend a fair amount of time in a single chair and while I spend some it reading, writing and thinking – often I am staring into a computer screen. Not an ideal source of personal reflection or growth. (As an aside, one experiment I read about recently asked subjects to sit for fifteen minutes in a chair with no device, book or other distractions. The only option that participants had was to shock themselves. An option none said they would take before the experiment, but many wanted to experience as more time passed.)
I recognized a few months ago that my “two chair” time had dwindled, so I set a goal that I would spend more one on one time with my immediate family, call other family members more regularly and schedule a night out with a friend at least once every two weeks. Stop and consider that for a moment. I had to set “goals” to spend quality time with people I care about. What does this say about how I or others in a similar situation generally spend our time running around from one activity to another?
Three chair time has been difficult for many of us during these last two years. The pandemic has made getting together more challenging all around. The relatively few times I’ve gotten together with larger groups only underscores its importance – especially during a time when it is so easy to be divided or insular in our views. Hopefully more “three chair” opportunities will abound as the latest wave abates – but haven’t we said this before?
When Thoreau says he went to “confront only the essentials in life,” many assume he was referring to nature. My interpretation is somewhat different. I believe what he sees as essential is our relationships. Yes with nature but also our relationship to ourselves and to others. Otherwise why bother with any chairs at all?
May your chairs and your life be full this week.
(This post was inspired by the book, Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau. It’s a wonderful book that I’d highly recommend.)