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Age as a Gift, Against Surface Living, & The Advantage of Handshakes (Reading Notes 6.12.18)

Resource: Thoreau on the Greatest Gift of Growing Old


Thoreau tells the story of an old man who, walking with a bent back, posessed a youthful countenance. This old man was carrying his shoes in his hand. In one shoe, was a dead robin. The other shoe was stuffed with apples. His pockets were filled with apples too. When he stopped to speak with him, he told Thoreau the story of how he killed the robin after discovering it with its wing broken. Then he talked about how he stumbled on the apples, but didn’t have a barrel or basket for carrying them. He spoke with such pride about his accomplishments and such anticipation about the joy he would later experience because of them. Thoreau then goes on to say how this man’s robin is superior to the common man’s turkey and how his shoes stuffed with apples is better than the common man’s fruit basket because of the story and joy behind them.

What Thoreau loved most about his old friend was the unapologetic attitude he had about his own existence. He was simply content with who he was and he made no apology for his manner. If it were a young man, Thoreau observes, he might have adjusted his posture and put his shoes back on out of shame. Thoreau concludes that this is one of the greatest benefits of old age: we become more at peace with ourselves and the youthful tendency to apologize for who we are gradually subsides.


“happiness feeds on the hard-earned blessing of making fewer apologies for our existence.” -Maria Popova

Thoreau’s story about the old man, his apples, the dead robin, and his boyish contentment with life:

“I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.”

The beauty of old age and its unapologetic spirit:

“This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments and memento mori’s. It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy… If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.”

“old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.”

Resource: Against Busyness and Surfaces: Emerson on Living with Presence and Authenticity


In a sense that doesn’t have to be taken too literally or strongly, it can be said that meaning can’t be found in New York City. NYC can be taken as a metaphor for the fast-paced and people-filled busy life characterized by superficial conversation and the everyday busyness of running errands. Even if our life takes place in these kinds of environments, we have to seek out other places. We have to seek out places that connect us to nature and consequently ourselves.

Don’t fall into the trap of keeping up with the times, the news, the fashions, or the latest status symbols. Keep up with your own evolution. Keep up with your sense of being a spirited being.

Living is a skill. And the most important aspect of this skill is learning to live deeply in an environment of surfaces.


Emerson on why life in the city can not meet the deepest needs of the heart:

“That Spirit which alone suffices to quiet hearts & which seems to come forth to such from every dry knoll of sere grass, from every pine stump & half-embedded stone on which the dull March sun shines will come forth only to the poor & hungry & such as are of simple taste. If thou fillest thy brain with Boston & New York, with fashion & covetousness, and wilt stimulate thy jaded senses with wine & French coffee thou shalt find no radiance of Wisdom in the lonely waste by the pinewoods.”

Kierkegaard on the absurdity of busyness,

“ “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.”

Emerson on how city life leads to surface life:

“In New York lately, as in cities generally, one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces. Everything is external, and I remember my hat & coat, and all my other surfaces, & nothing else. If suddenly a reasonable question is addressed to me, what refreshment & relief! I visited twice & parted with a most polite lady without giving her reason to believe that she had met any other in me than a worshipper of surfaces, like all Broadway. It stings me yet.”

On finding our connection to what matters even as if we live along surfaces:

“while it may not be possible for a person living in society to eradicate these superficialities entirely, it is possible to navigate them with grace while maintaining a deeper, more authentic interior life.” – Maria Popova

“We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.”

Resource: In defense of handshakes


There are risks involved in every transaction and it can be hard to know who you can trust. Moreover, some people are very liability conscious and other are very litigious in spirit. It can be tempting to get defensive and legalistic when you realize how true this can be but that only hinders your ability to be creative and generous.

In a world where we want to ensure integrity with legally-binding contracts, don’t forget the value of a good old fashioned handshake. The handshake symbolizes our willingness to interact with each other as human beings. It also symbolizes the trust we have in our own judgment.

Legal considerations are important, but a better way to build your business and network is to choose to work with people you don’t need to be defensive and legalistic with.


“When it’s not clear whether or not it’s worth the emotional and organizational risk to engage with someone, engagement doesn’t happen and costs go up.”

“Handshakes matter. They make our transactions more efficient and we all benefit.”

“But handshakes matter even more as part of our internal narrative. When you see yourself as a weasel, or as a bully, or as someone who is entitled to win at all costs, you’re poisoning your ability to be a generous creative. When you tell yourself a story of insufficiency, that you’re the sort of person who can’t possibly find the emotional or financial resources to keep your word, you make everything smaller. And when you’re always looking over your shoulder at who might be catching up to your most recent shortcut, you’re spending less time looking forward.”

“The bullying/shortcutting/legalistic approach to destroying the honor and trust of a handshake can lead to a downward ratchet. “Well, if they’re going to be like that, so will I…” The alternative is to reserve your best work and your best ideas and your best partnerships for people and organizations that work the way you’d like to work. A virtuous cycle, one in which the selfish people can peck at each other while you work overtime to keep your word with people who deserve it.”

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