When I look around myself at the society we’ve built, I frequently want to run away — to a life that’s simpler, quieter and more contemplative. I haven’t found the place to live that way, but I’m still looking.
In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau gave himself a two-year experiment in self-reliance and contemplation that he eventually wrote about in his book, “Walden, or, Life in the Woods.” Even if you don’t see the world the same as Thoreau did — and I don’t in some instances — the ideas in the book are important to those who are desperate to find more meaning in a modern world that feels plastic and sterile and dead.
An old song by Pat Terry says, “The whole world lies awake in its bed — and they wanna know if there’s life before death.” I don’t have any question that there’s life after death, but I sometimes wonder if there’s life before death — because what we call life frequently doesn’t seem like really living. Not everyone feels this, but many of us do. Maybe not all the time, but often enough to make us wonder whether we’re living our lives as we really want to.
Thoreau sensed that most people around him were unhappy even if they weren’t conscious of the reasons for it. In “Walden,” he said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” I see people who have resigned themselves to living a life they don’t love — with people who don’t understand them and feeling awash with contradictory desires and unrealized expectations — and I see desperate people.
I see those people on the treadmill of modern life — always feeling the need to work harder and achieve more and win others’ approval — and I wonder why. Hard work can be rewarding, but as Thoreau wrote in a letter in 1857, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”
I’ve been thinking about all of this because of something someone said to me a couple of days ago. She said, “I just want life to hold still so I can catch up.” And it made me wonder — once more — whether the kind of life that moves so fast that we end up like scurrying ants is really worth living. Since I love life, these thoughts always leave me wanting to find ways to make this life more meaningful. This is what Thoreau was doing with his experiment at Walden Pond:
“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.”
I don’t really want to live in a cabin in the woods by myself, but I’d like a modified version. Contrary to what most people assume, Thoreau didn’t live in the wilderness. The property where he lived on Walden Pond was only a couple of miles outside of Concord, Mass., and he had a number of visitors. (That’s a picture of Walden Pond today above.) He certainly wasn’t a hermit, although he referred to himself that way in the book.
I don’t really want to grow my own food and build my own one-room cabin. I don’t want all of the elements of what he had. But what I do want is a way to get quieter — to listen to myself, to listen to God, to listen to the natural world. I’d like to think and write and find more meaning in the interactions I had with people because of the time I spend pondering. Maybe I’ll find a place to do that — somewhere that feels authentic and natural, not plastic and artificial.
I realize that a lot of people are as happy as they know how to be in what I consider to be their “little plastic lives.” I realize that those of us who feel the need to disconnect from the noise and hustle of society and find more meaning are generally the oddballs. But Thoreau spoke to that, too. In the last chapter of “Walden,” he criticizes conformity and gives encouragement to those of us who aren’t “wired up” as others are:
“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 believed that this was the way in which humans can find happiness and fulfillment. I think the matter is more complicated than that, but I do think it’s a foundation upon which to build. With that as a foundation, I think we have a real shot to prove to ourselves that there really is life before death.