What Thoreau Knew
By: John Shepler
On his personal day of independence, July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into his one-room cabin, a home away from home that he had built for himself on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He stayed there a little over two years, living a life of voluntary simplicity and writing the books "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" and "Walden." When he left, he had done what he declared he was going to do...to live deliberately.
"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 did not die a wealthy man, although he could have. He was a Harvard graduate. Had he so chosen, he could have "fit in" with the prevailing cultures of business, politics or higher education. He could have hitched his wagon to the star of a traditional career and let it pull him comfortably through life. Today that would be called "living the American dream." But is it living deliberately?
More and more people today are beginning to wonder what they've gotten themselves into. The cornucopia that is the second half of the twentieth century offers us more and more and more, if only we'll reach in and take it. Yet that horn of plenty is seldom the horn of freedom. If you want more, you can have more, but there is a price to be paid.
The price is a faster and faster existence to pay for and use the riches that we've grabbed. Two working partners pursuing promising careers with the ever so near carrots of greater responsibilities and greater rewards may find themselves gasping for breath at the end of the day. Even those on a bit slower track may find themselves asking aloud "What am I doing with all this stuff, and why am I working harder and harder to get more and more of it? I'm not sure what I'm doing with half of it now."
So there is a movement afoot. It flies in the face of consumerism, yuppyism and success as we've come to worship it. It's a bumper sticker that goes on top of the one that says "he who dies with the most toys, wins." It's something more along the lines of "he or she who lives, wins."
It's called the simplicity movement, voluntary simplicity or living simply. The practitioners might be called simplists. There have always been some around. They are the ones who refuse to live above their means. They avoid debt like a disease and could care less what the Jones' think of them. They're not about to keep up with anyone, because they're not focused on what others have or are doing. They are pursuing something that is driving them from inside.
The last time we really heard a lot about "alternative" lifestyles was in the 1960's, when the hippie movement was the prevailing counterculture, and flower-power was in full bloom. Since the end of the Vietnam War, though, flower power has wilted and long since blown away. The last couple of decades have been about superachievement, overspending and upward mobility. Is this simplicity movement just the predictable reverse swing of the pendulum?
What's seems different this time is that the people involved, many in their twenties and thirties, are not driven by political dissent, a romance with shirking off all responsibilities or a flirtation with drugs. They are simply saying "I have quite enough, thank you. Someone else please take a turn."
We've been raised to believe that you must go as far as you possibly can in life, and that distance is measured by how busy you are, how hard you work and how much you've accumulated. This is still a compelling dream for many who are happy to buy in and do what it takes to maintain the upgradeable lifestyle. But now there is also a new alternative lifestyle emerging that neither rejects the affordable luxuries of life nor yearns for more. It is a satisfaction with less, in the sense that less of one thing, pressure, intensity, busyness or affluence means a trade for something else, such as self-determination, personal satisfaction, spiritual fulfillment or other things not valued so highly on the trading floor.
Thoreau wasn't abandoning his neighbors when he moved into the cabin at Walden Pond. He went there to grieve the untimely death of his brother, John Jr., who contracted lockjaw from a dirty razor. Henry David's first book was meant to be his tribute to their lives together. He valued that time of solitude and the process of working through his thoughts on life more than what else he could have been doing. He stayed to explain it all in his second book, "Walden."
There are choices available in life to each of us. They come time and time again. Picking one path does not mean staying that path forever, or that one way is necessarily better than another. For some it is the power life. For others the acceptance of simplicity as a virtuous way of living comes as a welcome relief.
Books of Interest
Walden Or, Life in the Woods And, on the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Peter Miller and Henry Thoreau Walden. Thoreau, a sturdy individualist and nature lover, lived a spare existence in a wooden hut on the edge of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, from 1845 to 1847. "Walden" is a record of his experiment in a simple life and his contemplation of the wonders of nature and the ways of man. This book includes the famous essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, " a selection of his poetry and a new introduction by W.S. Merwin.
Civil Disobedience, and Other Essays by Henry David Thoreau. Philosopher, naturalist, poet and rugged individualist, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) has inspired generations of readers to think for themselves, to follow the dictates of their own conscience and to make an art of their lives. This representative sampling of his thought includes five of his most frequently cited and read essays: 'Civil Disobedience, ' his most powerful and influential political essay, exalts the law of conscience over civil law.
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Also visit these related sites:
The Thoreau Reader - More about the books and essays of Henry David Thoreau, plus a wealth of research links.
Our 19th Century Educations - Why our educational system falls short for the world of today and tomorrow, and what you need to do about it.
Arbor Day, J. Sterling Morton's Legacy of Trees - How one man's passion to beautify a treeless prairie led to a worldwide holiday of environmental awareness.
Copyright 1998 - 2014 by John E. Shepler. Linking to this article is welcome, but no online republication is permitted. Print media republication rights are available at reasonable rates. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: July 19, 1998 as part of A Positive Light
Last Updated: March 6, 2014
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