“Thoreau-ing it all away”
Rev. Douglas Taylor
He said he went into the woods on purpose. He wanted solitude, he wanted to dig down deep into the nature of life itself and ‘suck the marrow’ he said – to touch the center; so, Henry David “social distanced” himself for two years, two months, and two days at Walden. I do hope the isolation impact of Covid-19 will not last as long two years, two months, and two days. That’s just too long. But perhaps, for us after these three months and change, we can begin to uncover some lessons. Perhaps there are some things we can learn from Thoreau about navigating the solitude and the distance we now keep as we travel through these pandemic times.
So, the caveat we must offer as we talk of Thoreau is that he was not, in fact, isolated or on lockdown the way many of us have experienced these past few months. Thoreau had a good bit of company through his time at Walden; he often took meals with his friend Mr. Emerson, for example. And there is that delightful factoid that his mother did his laundry on occasion.
Mr. Thoreau was not alone or truly isolated at Walden. He writes about having three chairs in the little house.
“…one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up.“
He went on to notice,
“It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof.“
The point for Thoreau was not to run away from society, but to step back from it to better understand his relationship to it. For that, I think we can still glean some wisdom although our situation, from his, differs.
Solitude was a goal for Thoreau, but not the full goal. Separation and space in which to think through his own thoughts – that was what he aimed to find: room to think. We, on the other hand, have been thrust into this separation and solitude by the pandemic; by necessity and compassion we keep our distance. But perhaps, since we are isolated, we may turn our thoughts now and then to the places Thoreau was wont to let his mind ramble.
“Let us settle ourselves, (he wrote) and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality…“
One of the more remembered lines from Walden is his declaration that he went to the woods “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, … 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.” He sought the solid ground, the firm bottom upon which he could stand – reality.
It was not solitude so much as simplicity that he wanted. Solitude was a means toward that goal. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he shouts at one point in the test, “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.” This now certainly is a fitting bit of wisdom I am trying to live. Simplicity.
This pandemic has narrowed my focus. I have not disappeared into the woods, fronting only essential facts of life. But I have felt winnowed into a few recurring topics: resistance, resilience and a reevaluation of what matters most. Unlike Thoreau, I did not choose this social fasting. Yet like him, I am finding this isolation an opportunity to settle in and consider how I spend my life.
How do you spend your life? What matters to you? Has this pandemic time raised to your awareness questions of this sort? Let me put it like this: In the opening chapter of the book, Thoreau takes pains to outline the economy of his endeavor. He details the cost of the nails while noting how he borrowed the ax. He lists out the cost of the seed while accounting the market value of the beans when harvested. But he is not really telling us about the beans and the nails as he is telling us about himself. Thoreau puts such details of his financial spending as backdrop to explore the moral and spiritual spreadsheet of his living.
He saw civilized society around him stuck in the consumption-driven capitalism which he detested. Were Thoreau to witness our times, he would likely rant even harder against the ridiculousness of the Dow Jones and the GDP when compared to his simple bean field. Or think of it this way: the earth, Thoreau might remind us, has its own economy revealed here in 2020 as the machinations of our global economy have stumbled through the slowdown. The planet has a cleaner and truer economy than anything Wall Street might offer.
What is it worth? What are the really important things? Thoreau went to the woods to hunt that out. We’ve been in an isolation ourselves and some things are rising in our national attention of late that may indicate we have some inklings of the answers as well.
I suspect it is not a coincidence that the Black Lives Matter protests of the past few weeks have had such an impact and have really begun to move the needle on the issue of racism in our country and around the world. I suspect it is not happenstance – that, instead, the global experience of solitude has simplified and clarified matters of importance for many people. How quickly the resistance did swell, how sustained the outrage has been through these weeks.
It is worth noting that when Thoreau left Walden, he published Civil Disobedience well before he published Walden. In the end, his experiment at Walden was not an escape from society; it was about the economy all along – again, not of the beans and the nails, but the moral and spiritual spreadsheet of a person’s soul. That is what the solitude can offer if you will let it.
Thoreau, at the end of Walden, wrote:
“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.”
Walden is regularly paired with his essay on Civil Disobedience because they are two sides of the same coin. We are meant to see them as such. As many of us can perhaps attest – solitude and reflection lead us into action, into resistance against injustice, particularly against unjust authority. Our time of pandemic social distancing has primed us into a heightened readiness to rail against systems of oppression and wonton acts of violence.
What else are we to do? Most of us, by necessity, are tapped into the heartbeat of connection through our computer screens. And the world is pouring in through those screens showing us the cruel reality of racism and police brutality. “And if it proved to be mean,” he wrote, “why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.” Well, here we have witnessed some certain meanness of life published through the cellphone videos again and again.
What else are we to do? The natural conclusion of the Walden-esque experience ought to be the full-throated call for resistance in the face of injustice – the call to refuse unjust laws and unjust authority. What else are we to do with this isolation but wrestle with what matters most in life and how we are to play our role in society going forward.
We are not done with this life of social distance but another life of social engagement calls to us all the same. What matters to you? What is it worth? At what cost, your health, your standard of living, the lives of the vulnerable, to soul of our nation? At what cost? How will you spend your life?
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; (Thoreau wrote in Walden’s conclusion) that if one advances confidently in the direction 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; (And here, I draw your attention to what he writes next) 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.”
This, this argument of a higher order by which our laws are judged, by which we test if something is just, this is the root argument of his essay of Civil Disobedience. And herein lies the lessons I find from Thoreau for today. The time I spend now in solitude a step away from society is an opening for me and all of us to go down to the depth with the questions of what matters most and how we spend ourselves in this life. When we simplify, when we clear the clutter of our lives – the cry to rise up against all that insults life and squanders the great gift we live, is a cry we find summoning us to stake a claim in the moral landscape of our shared living.
Walden was never about escape. It is the calm preparation before the time of action, as when the civil rights activists would kneel in prayer before standing up to march in the streets. We are in Walden today. We are isolated, although not by some plan of our own – yet here we are, Let us use this time wisely.
May your solitude be a time of reckoning with all that matters most to you. May you find focus in the themes of resistance, resilience and a reevaluation of what matters most. May you come forth from this isolating pandemic ready to answer the summons. For we, my friends, have several more lives to live.
In a world without end,
May it be so.