- An Irresistible Voice
"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” --Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I have! I have!
I ordered a copy of Walden to have something to read during two weeks of spring break, while my host family vacationed in Morocco and the grandparents came to housesit. The book ended up changing my life.
Walden was referenced more than once in another book I had loved, The Teenage Liberation Handbook, a radical book about quitting school and unschooling/homeschooling yourself. A cousin of mine sends a copy to the other cousins when they turn 14.
After I read the Handbook, I decided to stay in school, but knowing I could drop out whenever I wanted made me feel more active in my education. Going to school was no longer something the State forced me to do; I chose to go because it was the best fit for me.
The Handbook's references to Thoreau had led me to associate him with bad-ass individualism.
When finally I got ahold of Walden, I found myself underlining constantly. Page after page, a bravery and rebelliousness which had always existed in me was given poetic form and intellectual credence.
"The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?"
The more I read, the more I questioned everything I thought I knew.
"As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.”
I didn't know about a farm or a county jail, but I was definitely on track to go to college for four years and acquire tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt. That seemed like the opposite of living "free and uncommitted." But how could I get around it?
"What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new."
"As if you could kill time without injuring eternity."
I loved reading about Thoreau building his little cabin in the woods. It reminded me of all those industrious summer days I spent as a kid building forts in the woods with the neighbor boys.
"There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands."
"When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,--that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime."
The most profound thing I read was that Thoreau considered it more worthwhile and more courageous to explore, conquer, and order one's own interior world than to travel the globe, explore new territories, fight in a war, etc.
"What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition. . .but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone."
"Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist."
Since I loved most everything he was saying, it was hard to dismiss the fact that he referenced many holy texts, including the Christian Bible, which I wouldn't have realized without the footnotes.
"By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, [my townsmen] are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal."
He thought the Bible was worth quoting?
In any case, he seemed to believe in some wise, benevolent Intelligence that was higher than humans.
"As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts, and hide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its benefactor, and impart to its race some cheering information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over me the human insect."
In so many different ways, Walden invigorated me, inoculated me against public opinion, conformity, and fear, and killed whatever chance I might have had at leading a normal life.
"You may say the wisest thing you can, old man,--you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind,--I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels."