Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter with Thoreau

(News-Herald, April 9) You remember Henry David Thoreau. Went out and lived in a little cabin next to Walden Pond. Wrote a book about it. That’s about as much as most folks remember. If they remember much else, it’s the picture of some monk-like stick-in-the-mud anti-social fuzzy-headed philosopher.
This is at least partly the fault of those of us who inflict Henry on our high school English students. Sometimes we get more wrapped up in the highlights instead of the important details. So if Henry is mis-remembered, I have to take some of the blame myself.
It’s unfortunate, because Thoreau’s work strikes me as strangely relevant once again. But let’s clarify a few points before we get into that.
Walden Pond was not in the wilderness, and Thoreau did not cut all human ties while he lived there. He was about twenty minutes from town, which he visited often. He had parties. He grew beans and sold them. He delivered lectures about the experience even as he was having it; audiences found them witty and fun.
Thoreau’s move was not some sort of philosophical wild impulse. It was a response to his own situation and the state of the world at the time. He had gone to the big city to try to break into professional writing, and found the big city a tough nut to crack. He had worked as a handyman and au pair for his buddy Emerson, his days filled with looking after other people’s families and property.
The state of the world? In that pre-Civil War period, the country was in the grips of a tremendous economic downturn. Unemployment was high, prospects poor, the great experiment of capitalism apparently collapsing under its own flaws. Boy, just imagine a country in that kind of mess!
So Thoreau’s action was not an attempt to escape the world and rise, unencumbered by ordinary life, into some cerebral mental plane.
It was, instead, an eminently practical attempt to come to grips with the world. It’s not a reality escape—it’s a reality check. For himself, he was seeing if it was possible to do the work he wanted to do with just enough space to focus easily. For the country, it was almost a dare. So you think you can’t have a life without a pile of money and a big house packed full of stuff? Let’s see if that’s true.
The parallels to our own time seem obvious. The economic mess is, well, a mess. But it’s also a reality check. Last week a headline said “$500,000 home sold for $200,000.” Well, no. If the house sold for $200,00, it was a $200,000 house. Whether a McMansion, a hovel, or a box of beanie babies, any commodity is worth exactly what someone will pay for it. Pretending it has some other monetary value over and above that is invitation to disaster.
We’ve run headlong for a while now, our list of things we Must Have getting longer and longer. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that real human beings aren’t suffering real hurt in this mess, but as a country and a culture, we’re forced to deal with some perhaps overdue questions—how should each of us go about making a life in this world? Thoreau didn’t suggest we should all live in tiny cabins. He was suggesting that we all ask ourselves what parts of our lives we should really care about.
It’s an appropriate question for Easter week. The events of Easter capped a revolution that was far less, yet far more, than people had been looking for. People had clamored at God for generations with a long list of Things We Need From You To Make Life Good. I like to think that Jesus’s story is God’s way of saying, “Look, let’s talk about what you can really afford and what you really need. Let’s talk about what you really want your life to be.”
Thoreau’s intention was to live deliberately, to do things on purpose, which seems like a simple enough goal. Yet most of us are content to flop through whatever hoops are set before us by accident and habit. Thoreau believed that any day could be the day that we begin the life we choose to create for ourselves instead of one we drifted into, seduced by the world. Times can be scary, but as it turns out, we can lose much of what we want and still have everything we need.


Darci said...

I hate to clutter this up w/ comments. I just wish you had a thumbs up button at the bottom of your posts :)

Joe said...

This column is almost treasonous. It is un-American to suggest that people stop buying all the things they Must Have and then stop working 50 or 60 or 70 or more hours a week to pay for them and then stop to smell the roses and live more deliberately. It would harm the GNP, the very measure of our our lives, and could turn this country into someplace more like... Europe! Next, I suppose you'll say that more isn't better (oh, wait - you just said that!) or that everybody ought to have access to affordable health care, or some other such nonsense!

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