Adventure on life now (Walden 16)

prairie

Big bluestem, Nine Mile Prairie, Lincoln, Nebraska

“When a man is warmed by the several modes which I have described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous, incessant, and hotter fires, and the like. When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced. The soil, it appears, is suited to the seed, for it has sent its radicle downward, and it may now send its shoot upward also with confidence. Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden Continue reading

Oh no! Someone’s wrong on the Internet!

Wise words from David Cain at Raptitude, in a post titled, “Why most internet activists don’t change any minds”. I’ll have more to say about it below. Cain writes:

On Facebook I quietly unsubscribe from friends who regularly make angry issue-related posts, even if they’re right. I don’t want to be pummeled by “truth,” no matter how true it is.

I understand why they do it. I’ve done it. Ignorance — of overfishing, of puppy mills, of normalized sexism, of what vaccines can and can’t do — can be genuinely dangerous, and wanting to reduce this ignorance is understandable.

Some are able to do it carefully and diplomatically, and I have learned a lot from these people.

But most internet activists let contempt seep into the message. It becomes about making others wrong instead of trying to help them be right. Just visit virtually any issue-related message board. It’s adversarial. It’s normal to blame people for their ignorance.

Ignorance, if that’s what it really is, isn’t something people can fairly be blamed for. We don’t choose what not to grasp, what not to have been taught, what not to have understood the significance of.

Ignorance is blind to itself. When you’re trying to rectify ignorance in someone else, it’s easy to forget that you’re ignorant too, in ways you can’t know. Read full post at Raptitude.

Continue reading

Do you want to be an outsider? (Walden 15)

“The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a noble race of men.”

Thoreau has long been part of the canon of Great American Writers, meaning that generations of scholars, some great, have read, taught, and been influenced by him. Do they see themselves in this description? To what extent does respectability involve either: 1) sucking up to those in power; or, 2) being dead long enough that you’re no longer perceived as a threat? Continue reading

Are luxuries “hindrances to the elevation of mankind”? (Walden 14)

Walden Pond, 2010. Via Wikimedia Commons

Walden Pond, 2010. Via Wikimedia Commons

Here is one of Thoreau’s explanations for why he went to the woods:

“It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them.”

From here he goes into a long discussion of food, shelter, and clothing. At times he sounds like he’s going off the deep end into an extreme asceticism. For example, he writes that “the New Hollander goes naked with impunity, while the European shivers in his clothes. Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of these savages with the intellectualness of the civilized man?”

Not that he went quite that far. “At the present day, and in this country, as I find by my own experience, a few implements, a knife, an axe, a spade, a wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries, and can all be obtained at a trifling cost.”

Why would anyone do this? Remember Henry’s earlier comments about work and worry. The point here isn’t to suffer, but to reduce your wants to the point that you don’t have to work all the time to keep yourself comfortable. He wanted to leave himself plenty of time to walk in the woods, chat with strangers, read books, think, and generally enjoy himself. His fellow townsmen would consider it a master plan for maximum laziness. Continue reading

Living with uncertainty (Walden 13)

“The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

What does it mean to live by faith? Thoreau was not a conventionally religious person, and so I think the key phrase here is “commit ourselves to uncertainties.” If we’re honest, we admit that much of life is not under our control. And once we admit that, we have to find a way to live with it. We each have our own ways, our own beliefs, but the uncertainties remain. Continue reading

Repenting of our good behavior (Walden 12)

Thoreau cabin site

The site of Thoreau’s cabin, marked by a cairn in 1908. Via Wikipedia

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind — I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

If you’ve already read Walden, or if you’ve been reading these posts, you know what Thoreau — the self-styled outsider, the observer of daily life in his hometown — means by “good behavior.”

And I can almost hear the objections coming from his fellow townspeople: “Look, we’re the ones building the roads, the schools, the businesses. We’re building this thing called civilization. Sorry it isn’t up to your standards, Henry. And what exactly is it that you’re doing to help?” Continue reading

Startling and informative (Walden 11)

More about the previous post: After talking about the “miracle” in which we “look through each other’s eyes for an instant,” Thoreau goes on to say, “I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informative as this would be.”

A few paragraphs earlier he says that the “whole ground of human life seems to some to have been gone over by their predecessors…” an idea with which he strongly disagrees. What we need, he believes, is a fresh perspective, and he’s suggesting that we can achieve this through imagination and empathy. You think it’s all been said and done and thought before? You have only to question the things you took for granted and look at them with fresh eyes, and new worlds will open to you.

I’ve suggested this before, but it bears repeating: Walden isn’t primarily a book about going to the woods. It’s a book about looking at the world around you in a new way. Going to the woods wasn’t just for the love of nature. It was also a way of gaining perspective, of standing just enough apart from normal life to see it as a visitor, as if meeting it for the first time.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)