Tag Archives: death

What does Thoreau mean by “Compassion is a very untenable ground”? (Walden 197)

Thoreau believed strongly that we need to witness the power of nature, to observe how it transgresses our limits. And this includes seeing what we perceive as the darker and more grotesque side of nature. As we come to the end of the chapter “Spring,” he’s about to say something startling, something which, if taken out of context, would seem callous and offensive — we’ll get to that a little later. “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” Are you cheered when you see vultures circling in the sky, or feasting on road kill? Continue reading

Things I would say to the kitten we found under the hood of our car

Boo the day we found her, August 10, 1997.

Boo the day we found her, August 10, 1997.

At first we thought it was only a bird chirping. I started the car and pulled away from the curb. The sound followed us down the street, insistently. Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! My wife and I looked this way and that, but saw no bird. It followed us four blocks through our neighborhood.

“Stop the car!” my wife said suddenly. She still saw nothing, but it had dawned on her that the voice wasn’t following the car—it was trapped inside it. Continue reading

“I did not wish to live what was not life…” (Walden 57)

The first sentence below is probably the most quoted part of Walden. Last time I quoted it in isolation, as it usually appears, but today I want to show where Thoreau was leading with those words. Here’s it is with more context:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

If you’ve read this far into the book you already know that Henry has concluded that life is sublime and not mean, but what is he saying with that last bit about the chief end of man? Continue reading

Leaving your mark on the world: the web of effect

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

“I want to leave a mark,” says one of the characters in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, subject of last week’s post. “But… The marks humans leave are too often scars.”

As the speaker implies, a lot of the ugliest aspects of human history come from people trying to leave their mark on the world. But can’t we all identify with this? Who doesn’t want to make a lasting difference and escape the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”

But maybe we do achieve a kind of permanence, after all. You could think of it as sort of a web of effect. Everything we do has multiple effects that spread out from ourselves like the strands of a spider web, or like ripples in a pond. Your actions affect other people, altering their behaviors in big and small ways that in turn affect others, and so on, spreading out through space and time. (Time travel stories make much of this. You go back in time and step on a bug and return to your own time to a world altered beyond recognition.) Continue reading

Why you must read John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”

TFIAS jacketYou must read this book. I realize it’s been out for a while and is already being made into a movie, and as usual I’m late to the party. But if you haven’t read it…

OK, this is a book about teenagers with cancer. Terminal cancer. This could have been a depressing book, but I didn’t find it so — though it certainly has its share of sadness. Even the dust jacket warns you:

“Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”

You’ve probably heard it said, “Young people think they’re immortal, and that they’ll never grow old.” (The last part is true enough in Hazel’s case.) And today’s generation of young people, just like every recent generation before it, is often dismissed as spoiled, narcissistic, shallow, and lazy. If that’s true, why is this smart, unflinching story so wildly popular with said young people? Why does a book for teenagers deal with the issues of mortality more seriously and more intelligently than most of what you find in the adult world? And this isn’t an anomaly. Both the Harry Potter books and The Hunger Games trilogy face death pretty squarely. (I can’t comment on Twilight — I haven’t read those.) Continue reading

Art’s nature versus “real” nature

Do you like nature photography? So do I, but today I want to look at how photography can give us a false (or at least incomplete) impression of nature.

I found this picture on Pinterest under “Nature.”

I like it (I want to go there), but in real life you probably won’t see anything so perfect. The flawless shapes and textures, the richness of the light — it’s all been carefully selected and composed, and maybe amped up in Photoshop as well.

I’m not knocking it. If I had taken anything this good, I’d post it here and brag about it. And all photographers distort their subjects — if in no other way, simply by selecting the scene and composing it. It’s already curated reality before the picture is even taken. Continue reading