When I was thirteen years old, my mother convinced me to read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Looking back over the notes that I scribbled in the margins of the book, it is safe to say that I did not enjoy it in the least. There is a passage in Walden that reads, “I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors” (Thoreau 7-8). Next to this statement, my thirteen-year-old self wrote, “I have been reading this book for thirty minutes, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from you.” And yet, after rereading Walden over these last few weeks, I have found its advice both valuable and earnest. So why was I so irritated by my first encounter? I believe that the biggest reason was my inability to understand how anything that Thoreau was saying was supposed to impact me, practically speaking. I had no desire to live alone, in a tiny cabin, with only the bare essentials to keep me company, and I had no desire to listen to the philosophical musings of a man who believed that that was what I should do. However, upon a second reading, I see that is not what Thoreau is suggesting at all.
The French philosopher, René Descartes, came up with a famous analogy that I think captures the essence of what Thoreau was doing when he decided to live in a cabin at Walden Pond. Descartes writes:
Suppose [a person] had a basket full of apples and, being worried that some of the apples were rotten, wanted to take out the rotten ones to prevent the rot spreading. How would he proceed? Would he not begin by tipping the whole lot out of the basket? And would not the next step be to cast his eye over each apple in turn, and pick up and put back in the basket only those he saw to be sound, leaving the others? (Descartes 324)
When Thoreau abandoned the trappings of life and headed for the woods with only the essentials, he was tipping out the apple basket of his life, if you will, and forcing himself to live only with what was absolutely necessary. Thoreau was forcing himself to re-examine his relationship with possessions, with people, and with himself. As he puts it, “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” (Thoreau 93).
The manner in which Thoreau decided to live deliberately may have been rather extreme, but sometimes we need to be confronted with examples of extreme behavioural changes in order to recognize the small changes that need to be made in our own lives. In reading Walden, I am reminded of the importance of living with purpose and of taking practical steps to ensure that I am not, as Thoreau put it, “thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails” (Thoreau 100). For that is what living deliberately is – it is to have a goal and to stride purposefully toward it. Throughout Walden, Thoreau is continuously expressing his distaste at the way many of his contemporaries are living life, allowing themselves to drift aimlessly through it, untethered by purpose, occupied with fruitless work, distracted by worthless luxuries and influenced by untested opinions. This, thought Thoreau, wasn’t truly living at all. Far too often, I find myself similarly untethered by purpose, and so, alive in only a superficial sense. This can be seen in my often unhelpful relationship with technology, which is something that should be my tool but can just as easily become my master. Over 150 years ago, Thoreau wrote the words, “But lo! Men have become tools of their tools” (Thoreau 37). How true those words are in today’s age! We are mesmerized by our screens; we find it hard to tear our eyes away from their hypnotic glow. Are we controlling our decisions or being controlled? Are we taking every thought captive or allowing ourselves to be captivated? Are we using a tool or being used by one?
There are many obstructions and distractions on the road of life, but we are not powerless against them. As Thoreau said, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour” (Thoreau 93). In other words, we do not have to live at the mercy of circumstance. We are all endowed with the ability to make life-elevating changes. To give a personal example, I have made a conscious decision to not use social media; this choice has had a positive impact on my life. Similarly, before sitting down to write this reflection, I forced myself to focus by blocking my access to YouTube, a website I often unconsciously open and browse. I agree with Thoreau that you cannot “kill time without injuring eternity,” (6) and so, in the desire to pursue and accomplish both my daily goals and my eternal calling, I wish to minimize the ways in which I can become distracted from my purpose.
In class, we spent some time thinking about the genre of Walden, and it was suggested that perhaps Walden is poetry. Billy Collins, the popular American poet, once said that poetry is “a history of the human heart” (Collins). It is a beautiful definition of poetry and a perfect description of what Walden is. Walden is the history of a heart, the heart of a man who was concerned that those around him had “no time to be anything but a machine” and so actually did something about it (Thoreau 4). He did not passively sit back and allow himself to be carried along by the winds of progress or buffeted by the waves of conformity. He spent two years, two months, and two days living alone in a tiny cabin, with only the bare essentials to keep him company. What he did was unconventional, some might say crazy, but to quote writer G.K. Chesterton: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it” (388).
While my first encounter with Thoreau was not exactly a pleasant experience, my second encounter has more than made up for it. I believe that many of Thoreau’s ideas are more relevant than ever, and his advice still applicable. Living deliberately, in both small everyday ways, and in the larger life-encompassing sense, is something that is of great importance to me. I try to take practical steps to ensure that I do not drift through life in ‘quiet desperation,’ and reading Walden for the second time has reminded me of the importance of those deliberate decisions. These decisions may be inconvenient, they may appear strange to others; however, as Thoreau put it, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away” (Thoreau 342).
Chesterton, G. K. The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton. Ignatius Press, 1986.
Collins, Billy. “Introduction: The Pleasure Poetry Gives Us.” MasterClass, MasterClass, 1 Oct. 2020, www.masterclass.com/classes/billy-collins-teaches-reading-and-writing-poetry/ chapters/introduction-the-pleasure-poetry-gives-us.
Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 2. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. T.Y. Crowell & Company, 1899.