“Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.” —Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude,” Walden
This is relevant now more than ever. I’ve asked this before, but in an increasingly connected world, are we ever really alone? If people are constantly connected to others via voice, text messages, and social media, are they ever even alone with their thoughts? Do they even have their own thoughts anymore, or only collaborative ones? Is there any mental space for contemplation, or only for reaction?
“We live thick and are in each other’s way,” Thoreau writes, “and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another.”
At first glance Henry seems old-fashioned here, but I think he’s ahead of his time. Granted, he goes on to suggest that an ideal population density would be about one person per square mile. Although that density actually exists in some counties of my state (Nebraska), for most of us that’s not realistic even if we desired it. We live in a far more crowded, far more urban world than he did. But he recognized the power of solitude and the importance of finding some space for yourself — not to negate human relations, but to make them better.
Writing this, I’m sitting in a library on a crowded university campus, surrounded by thousands of students. But it’s quiet here amid the stacks. (The trick is to go up to the study carrels near the physics and astronomy books where few people go.) I have an office at work, but people know where to find me so I like to disappear over the lunch hour, no phone, no email. It’s a small thing, probably insufficient to someone of Henry’s temperament, but I find that it improves the day.
(About “A Year in Walden”)