Thoreau, Trust, And Thinking It Through
I love the turnings of seasons with the solstices and equinoxes. Each one gives us a kind of do-over for the deeper effects of being human: hopeful in spring, abundance in summer, an ease in fall, and deep reflection in winter. This turning from hope to abundance is the summer solstice. Long days of light, short nights of dark, and sunshine of tans and air-conditioning. Take a deep breath for yourself and welcome this summer into your life.
I had a special summer trip many solstices ago to Concord, MA and Walden Pond. Clicked off a bucket list item seeing Henry David Thoreau’s grave site. I have carried Henry David Thoreau on my hero list most of my reading life. That is not to say he has the most inviting writing style or follows our Composition professors’ call to write clearly and simply. But a hero of spirit who looked his American social milieu in the eye and said, I’ll take Walden Pond and the woods, thank you very much!
I ask you to consider the values of the woods compared to the values of our social milieu in this read. Both, of course, hold sunlight and shadow. Time in the woods and time with nature is full of benefit for us, and probably the busier life that you have, the more nature time you need for health and ease. The Japanese and Finland peoples have a whole system of “forest bathing” packed full of research about the health and mental benefits for us if we can find some time with trees. Sights and sounds and smells given to us from the earth, at no cost and no demands on us. Sparkling light thorough leaves of dark green. Bird songs that delight the ear and feed the heart. Freshness of green and grass and whispering air. Do you know that the science of selling cars and trucks on TV take advantage of our need and connection to the woods. Notice all the greenery and open vistas in your next car/truck commercial. Car commercial-our social milieu. A walk in the woods-your real health. How easily we are distracted from the real.
Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond was very much about societal norms distracting us from the truer, healthier sense of a life we can live. Martin Heidegger, the influential 20th century German philosopher talks about how something like the vital experience of nature can be co-opted from us through something like a tourist industry. Even my forest-bathing friends in Japan and Finland might have some hidden commercial interests on getting us back to nature. Our basic needs in life are so meshed with social and corporate interests. If Thoreau thought he had problems separating the two in 19th century America, what he could only think given a day in 2022! But like any good thinker of the past, he left us some clues to help us make our own way in our time.
Here is one that gets straight to it from his “Economy” chapter in Walden: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” I love this because it reminds us that we are philosophers; we all are called to live wisely. On an editorial note, as a white middle class American male, Thoreau overshoots on the emphasis on independence, but the rest carries a lot to help us in the 21st century. It is a list of virtues, but as with any important list, can certainly use of set of instructions.
Looking for a simplicity in our 21st century lives is like looking for Waldo in a “Where’s Waldo puzzle. It is there but hidden in a huge collection of other stuff. And aren’t we the consumer society of stuff? Thoreau’s own list may not exactly be ours (“a knife, an axe, a spade a wheelbarrow, etc.”) but his second “studious” list involves only “lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books”. Heck, we have those all in our phones now. Just to be clear-Thoreau’s call to a simple life calls to be studious (oh, students!). Hold firm in the learning of life, but also question the material part of your life: what are those things (and always the essentials of safety and human comfort) that are needed for the wise life of inner richness?
Magnanimity works well in the 21st century. We have so many ways to support others through online applications, community volunteer structures, and urban access. As Thoreau knew but lacked the evidence as we do today, helping others along with gratitude is a sure way of improving one’s happiness level. Of course, magnanimity carries more than just helping or supporting others. It is a default attitude to our fellow human beings. One that does not carry social judgement about rank or income or education level or skin color or heritage. Thoreau himself felt the sting of social judgement, and he was a fairly well-off white guy! And if you think social status is a deal here in Oklahoma, just visit new England a couple of times! Having magnanimity hearkens back to having simplicity. If we know life’s richness dwells within rather than with outer riches and fashions, our social milieu has less influence on who we are. But that second part as seeing everyone as worthy of your respect and listening to them as appreciation and curiosity is as a profound problem for us as it was for the poet of Walden Pond.
We are still living with a country of institutional racism, one with an unlevel playing field of economic access, and one that tilts more to a lived inequality. Thoreau’s known stand as an abolitionist and his essay, “Civil Disobedience”-I say a must read for any educated person-gives us a snapshot of simplicity and studiousness coming together in a wisely lived life. We each deserve enough in material, in spiritual resonance, and in justice. The first part is our self-questioning of need, the latter our self-awareness and dedication to a just society.
Only through a wiser perception of society’s distractions, biases, and consumptive motivations along with a default to our lived sense of fairness, equality, and justice for all do we arrive at Thoreau’s final item on the list, trust. My friend, Parker Palmer, has dedicated his life to ways of building trust in institutions of education, among educators, and to a trust that makes for a vital, vibrant classroom. At the heart of his work is very much Thoreau’s magnanimity: to see each other as fellow humans and to listen to each other without judgement or applied social status. Simply to listen, care, and share curiosity. I wish I knew why that is so difficult and so seemingly unrealistic for so many. With no answer, I can at least point us in the direction of self-reflection and humility in the face of a complex, global life experience. And at least some of that inner work done at your own Walden Pond. Nature, some studiousness, not feeling superior-not so unrealistic for the wise life we can all live on behalf of each other and on behalf of the earth that is home for us all.
The sunlight and clear air of a mid-summer field. The shadow of anxiety and pain that we bring to each other as a society. We live with both. We can take-on the experience of both: one as beauty and one as a responsibility to do better. Isn’t doing better the American dream? I defer to my reading hero here as a wisdom to collect into your own life:
“But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. Now way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof” (Walden, Or Life in the Woods).
And the proof? Ah. To think upon that in self-reflection will be one more richness to add to your summer abundance as you take an evening walk amongst the trees.