What It Takes to “Outlive the Bastards,” According to Edward Abbey

When my father announced two weeks before the first of September that our family would be holding a Poetry Slam in two days’ time, I almost spit out my orange juice.

“What? You’re giving us… homework?” I spluttered, fumbling for my napkin.

“School hasn’t even started yet,” moaned my ten-year-old brother, mournfully taking a bite of soggy Cheerios. My five other younger siblings nodded fervently in agreement; even my mother seemed taken aback by the morning’s announcement.

“It’ll be fun!” my father beamed. “Every one of us will find and memorize some sort of a poem by  Thursday. That evening we will recite them over dinner for the entire family. So start looking!”

Little did I know later that Tuesday night (while I was grumpily flicking through a dusty stack of poetry books) that this Poetry Slam would lead me to a quote from an American environmental advocate that perfectly addressed my current worries about life and humanity during these unprecedented times. In the third poetry book, I encountered a makeshift bookmark between two pages, which--once unfolded--revealed the reminder I now have memorized.

Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast, a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and elusive air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness of the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: you will outlive the bastards.

—EDWARD ABBEY, 1927–1989

Valley of Heroes, Tjentište , Bosnia and Herzegovina Nikola Majksner It wasn’t a poem. But it captured my attention the way few poems have, coaxing me to reread it over and over again to untangle the layers of meaning. The first line-- “Do not burn yourselves out” --was simple and to the point, but it was the second line about being a “part-time crusader” that drew me in. I didn’t think I’d ever heard advice urging me against giving something--whether it be work or school or both--my all. 

The middle portion of Abbey’s quote dedicated itself to the outdoors. “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it,” he emphasized. “Ramble out yonder and explore the forests... breathe deep of that yet sweet and elusive air.” How long had it been since I last did mindful breathing? Inhale through your nose and slowly exhale through your mouth, my gym teacher from second grade would murmur. I could almost hear it. Tense your shoulders, children--tight tight tight!--and relax, letting all of your worries go. I returned to Abbey thinking about my current worries about life. The list was not exhaustive; it included everything from the safety of elderly family members to how on earth I was going to make new friends in college during a pandemic.

In the last sentence, Abbey’s promise filled me with a warm hope. Once again his simple advice--to relax, to smile, to keep a level head--was so welcome. “You will outlive the bastards,” he assured, and I didn’t take “bastards” to mean unpleasant or villainous people. Rather, I saw “bastards” as anything that poses a challenge or opposition, anything that tries to drag a person down. 

Although this quote is from the twentieth century, it holds valuable meaning for today’s world. As a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is struggling along with millions of other freshmen to navigate college life during a global pandemic, I see “bastards” as the coronavirus. Since COVID-19 unfortunately isn’t going away anytime soon, we need to focus on making it through these next few weeks and months and maybe years in one piece. We need to save ourselves for much-needed “Me Time”; we need to get outside, get out of our heads, get exercise, get enough sleep and get in touch with that friend we’ve been meaning to call.

We need to be part-time crusaders, for only then can we outlive the bastard 2020 has brought us.

Courtesy: Juan Davila