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.

How did Henry live with it? That brings me to what he wrote just before the above-quoted passage (I beg your pardon for quoting it out of order):

“I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do. We may waive just so much care of ourselves as we honestly bestow elsewhere. Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength.”

At this point in his life Henry seems to think of nature as benevolent. In the end, nature not only provided the land that fed him, but also the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. But Henry certainly understood those risks. He lived in a world in which death often came for you sooner rather than later. But he seems to chosen not to worry about that which he could not control. He chose to see the world as basically benevolent and lived accordingly. That is a faith of sorts. It works best, Henry believed, if you keep things simple. More about that next time.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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