Henry David Thoreau – Walden
Finding meaning in simple things and simplicity (having a life about simple things)
“I got up early and bathed in a pond; that was a religious exercise” said Thoreau. There is a verse in Leviticus about going 40 yards past the border of your camp to go to the washroom. I thought this was quite insightful because of the medical implications of going to the washroom within the camp limits. This is done today through sewers. But what are we missing. Maybe it is about more than just avoiding bacteria and being clean. Maybe it is a time away from life, from camp to think. Maybe some of the “primitive” habits have more meaning than just the physical implications we associate with them because we are a materialist society. We have stripped the meaning out of every day life and it is hard to find, so people search for meaning in complex places instead of in the simplicity of a pond in the morning, or in the solitude of the bathroom. Maybe there is more to the joke that the bathroom is where people get the best thinking done.
Thoreau argues to the farmer that he can spend all day in the field working alone, but when he comes inside he is bored. The student can spend all day inside alone because she is busy doing her work. As for leisure time, he offers his own life as an example. He said that he only once became lonely when he started to think about other people in the town not far away, but he then got to thinking about “such sweet and beneficent companionship in nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the imagined advantages of human neighbourhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.” As I was writing this quote it occurred to me that nature is much like poetry. It takes work, you have to read it a couple of times, and on the first read the mind wanders, it is like two poles of a magnet; once you start concentrating your attention is immediately on something else. But once I can read it through a couple times it is addictive. It conveys so much meaning in just a couple short sentences, something prose takes a long time to convey.
I would argue that our complex lives are very simplistic in meaning, but the simple life is very complex with meaning. The more meaningful something is, the less busy we have to be to escape boredom.
Maybe this is best communicated by poetry:
Busyness is a substitute for meaning
Use boredom to find the meaning
Then expand it, into the rest of your life
And find the boredom retract
That wasn’t really poetry, its distilled prose, I’ll keep trying.
I found another application of this principle in my own life. I just got married and my wife and I are just finishing the process of setting up our home. We needed to find a pepper mill, and in the store they have one just like my parents have. That pepper mill has a lot of memories attached to it, you could even say it has meaning for my life. If I surround myself with things that have meaning, as opposed to surrounding myself with things that are fashionable it escapes the fading of fashion. I think it is a form of contentment, probably a degraded form, but still the beginning of it.
A big critique of civilization Thoreau had was the fascination with the news. He said it is all pretty much the same, once you’ve read about one murder the rest are the same. I think what he was getting at was that people just read about stuff to keep busy. It serves no other purpose than entertainment, so why read the news at all.
What to do with this life
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to life the life which he has imagined, he will meet with unexpected success… If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost’ that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them” The problem that I have is that I am not sure what my dream is. I find compassion very beautiful, so I want situations to be compassionate. But being compassionate is only part of a beautiful world, and I want to live in a beautiful world; a world that is full of meaning and empty of busyness; a world where everyone gets along and genocide isn’t in the dictionary. This seems to be young and idealistic, but then didn’t Thoreau just say that “he will meet with unexpected success”? Thoreau wouldn’t want me to give up my dreams even though they won’t happen, but in having them I will get things closer to them. This is young idealism.
Dream big, but judge realistically
Reality isn’t meant for dreams
It’s meant for judging accomplishments
This is another side of life, one that contrasts Tocqueville’s prompt and easy with delayed and difficult