Last week, I went to Walden Pond just outside Concord, Massachusetts. It is a strangely magical place where one of my heroes, Henry David Thoreau, once retreated and observed, meditated and expressed his thoughts on the world around him.
My visit came just after the celebration of Thoreau’s 200th birthday — a baffling expanse of time compared to the short span of Thoreau’s life. He lived for less than half a century, dying of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 44. The facts of his short life remind us of how different our time is from his.
Much of what Thoreau wrote deals with the world in close-up. Though renowned for his social commentary, his focus only occasionally broadened to allow for roomy social critique. He was an observer in awe of the details, always critical of the larger world but infrequently willing to look up from the immediate to reflect on the larger picture. I have always found inspiration in Thoreau’s writing, but I’ve often been lost in the minutiae of his narrative and have not derived the empowerment that I sought to criticize my own world.
"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." — Henry David Thoreau, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For", in Walden
Lately, I’ve been needing inspiration. I’ve craved empowerment for social criticism. The world I live in parades its bankruptcy of intellect and flaunts a moral code written by property developers, investment bankers and cable news political pundits. The world I live in is all about justifying greed and the worship of excesses. It’s a world that asks us to trade the clean air we breathe and the water we drink so we can lavish ourselves with mass produced trash. Success in the 21st century is reserved for those who have learned to calculate and extract maximum value from minimal good. Our heroes are takers, not givers. Brand is currency in a system that endeavors to romanticize empire-building and acquisition ever beyond need. The ideas on which we have built our reality are slung by nincompoops who find audience peddling hateful rhetoric to simpletons who seek nothing more than someone to look up to. “Truth” is a selling point of some thought-peddler’s falsehood. The masters of modern media — men like Roger Ailes — have built a world in which hate is a lucrative trade, and companies like Amazon openly support sites like Breitbart because even racists deserve free shipping. There’s always someone willing to pay for audience, no matter how repugnant the message. In a reality where success in business is the highest virtue, there is never a higher standard to which we can hold ourselves.
“Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
I came to Walden with some of the same expectations that I’ve brought to my reading of Thoreau: I sought a gratification that was more immediate, and easier to grasp than what Thoreau had to offer. What I found at Walden was a place richer in detail, requiring of patience and a willingness to experience. Don’t visit Walden Pond as if it were an exhibit in a museum. Don’t go looking for the place Thoreau left. Go to walk around the shore, listen to the birds and the breeze that softly grace the maple and white pine. Go to find yourself in your own moment, and there you might better appreciate your reading of Thoreau and his observations.