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?”

And Henry says, “I’m showing you how to build a better civilization than the one you have. You think this is all about living in the woods?”

I’m sure that would’ve been a lively conversation. But Henry says something else to disturb anyone who builds something and then comprehends their own mortality: “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.”

Yes. “There is no remembrance of former things,” says the author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, “neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”

You build that grand accomplishment of yours and then some young punk shrugs his shoulders and passes it by without a second look on his way to the woods. Your grand project will crumble, of course, in due time. The young punk will grow old and die (or in this case die before he grows old), but there will be more young punks, generation after generation of them, and they won’t even remember your big thing, and they’ll build their own big things atop its ruins.

But the truth is, the young punk on his way to the woods understands this. In fact, that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing. He knows all this is temporary. This doesn’t interfere with the life he has in mind.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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