I finally finished Walden. It has been a long time in coming; not the easiest of reads and not having a lot of free time made getting through the book harder than it might have been otherwise. But it was a wonderful, fascinating book, and I can hardly believe that in less than one month I’ll be able to see Walden with my own eyes. I’m attempting not to have any expectations about it. Obviously it was a place of deep wonder and beauty for Thoreau. But that was over 150 years ago. Humankind’s stewardship of the natural world has been woefully irresponsible in that time. Regardless, the book he wrote is not one that prescribes a path, but one that extols the importance of finding one’s own path via the description of Thoreau living his.
I have now read the closing of the book of his journey while midway through my own. It is fitting; I left behind what felt like my first real home to embark on this journey. That was, in a sense, in step with Thoreau as I started reading Walden at that time. To now read about his leaving Walden and his cabin behind I feel the experience has come full circle. Reflecting on this change he said: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
I have always said I felt as if I’ve lived several lives (and been several “mes”) throughout my existence. Most definitely there have been several periods closed that were so significant, calling them “lives” is more appropriate than calling them “chapters.”
The end of his time in the woods was an end to one of his lives just as leaving Boise was an end to one of mine. Now I’m living a new life and, in due course, “This, too, shall pass.” Then will come another life; the labor of building my equivalent of the cabin-in-the-woods and the subsequent living there.
How many more lives are yet to come? It doesn’t matter. I must continue on the path as best I can each day. As Thoreau says in his conclusion: “…if one advances confidently in the directions of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. 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.”
I love that he says “a success” not just “success.” Too many are obsessed with “success” without giving any deep thought about what that means and how it might be measured. To those who say we are intellectual dwarfs compared to the ancients, he says: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.” Then he asks: “Shall a man go hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.”
To those who are focused on financial/material success: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed in such desperate enterprises? 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.”
He goes on to say, in a deliciously ambiguous fashion, that life “…looks poorest when you are richest.” He continues “Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.”
I do not take this to mean it’s impossible the find a meaningful existence while in possession of wealth; or that living a life with no money is the only way to find true happiness. But once the needs of food, shelter and clothing are met; money is not that important. Furthermore, greater wealth has a tendency to distract from, rather than help with, living a full, happy and meaningful life.
If all this is so, how can one hope to navigate life without the conventional prescriptions and metrics offered by society? The answer is simplicity itself; yet it cannot be put into words. You could call it “nature, of itself” but unless you know they answer already that may not be much help. Perhaps some closing comments from Thoreau might help:
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”
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