“I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden
Is it possible to “travel” in your home town? Have you ever done it? Remember what Henry said in the previous post about writing about your life as if writing home from a distant land. He learned to see his home town as if for the first time, as if newly arrived from some distant shore. He took nothing for granted and experienced it fresh.
And what did he find? People doing “penance” (Henry was not a big fan of the workaday world, to put it mildly.) He follows this up with a vivid catalog of mythological tortures, which he compares to the lives of his fellow townsmen.
“I see young men, my townsmen,” he goes on to say, “whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of…”
And he treats us to a startling word-picture of a “poor immortal soul… well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty….”
What his neighbors would call good fortune he considers a great misfortune. It’s as if Henry is standing on his head and looking at the world upside down.
Are desired possessions such as homes, cars, businesses, or careers also burdens in a way? Of course they are. But is Henry serious about how bad they are, and is he trying to get us to give them up and join him in the woods?
Or is he using hyperbole to get our attention? Maybe he only wants us to join him and stand on our heads, looking at the world upside down for a while, as a starting point for a discussion about what really matters in life.
(About “A Year in Walden”)