Awhile back, I discovered a book by Henry David Thoreau called Where I Lived and What I Lived For. It was a small book, but it also ended up being quite a fascinating read. In fact, I think there are few books in this world that I’ve taken such a liking to so quickly.
You can read all of my book reviews here.
So, without further ado. Let’s get started….
Do I Even Really Like Thoreau?
I’ve read a few Thoreau books in my life. In high school I remember reading Walden and don’t remember being altogether impressed. I’m reading the Portable Thoreau right now, and can’t say it’s much better.
But, this book is somehow different. I think maybe it’s because Thoreau so completely focuses on his motivations for leaving home and heading out into the wild places (what could be considered wild then), what drove him, spurred him on when it was cold, and rainy, and less than ideal.
This book tackles all of that and more. He describes in poignant detail, how man has lost his way in becoming civilized. How he no longer is owner, but how the possessor has become the possessed. And, he provides the prescription to, at least in theory, alleviate all of man’s struggle in this, the modern world.
The Plight of Modernity
Thoreau claims most people have “a strange uncertainty about life,” not certain whether this life has been crafted by God or the devil. I would say, in this day and age, there is a struggle to know if God even exists. If he ever existed.
Despite declaring from of old, our chief purpose is to declare “God’s glory and enjoy him for ever,” most of us seem only to “fritter away our life on details.”
Thoreau aptly described the problem before us. He states that young people, townsmen, have the misfortune of inheritances – possessions – by which they become worse off than if they had been “born in open pasture and suckled by a wolf.”
Worse yet, is the inheritance we entertain, all of us, from our cultural ancestry. If not shackled by all these misgivings, misunderstandings and outright deceptions, we would, as Thoreau states, “see clearer the field in which we are called to labor in.”
How many of us were given the higher education imperative? I enlisted and served myself up as slave to my own government, all to acquire some of these cultural norms.
Health Care. Education.
Yet, I am no better for it. In fact, I am a hundred times the worse. A modern day serf. Though, thankfully today I stand free.
Thoreau asked the question, “why do most begin digging their graves as soon as they were born?” And he is certainly right. Why must we “live a man’s life, pushing all these things before us?”
Car payment? Mortgage? College debt? Health Care? Retirement? Family Obligation?
What do we truly get in exchange for all these things we drag around with us to our oft and early graves?
I don’t know of a single soul that has found real and true satisfaction in a 30 year fixed. I have witnessed freedom in paying such things off. In emancipating the individual from the shackles of greed and financial servitude.
I recall a blog post in which I espoused the benefits of radical financial freedom, in minimalism, in restrictive expenses. In one of the comments, someone stated in response, “A sure fire way to be poor all your life.”
Of course, entitled we may be to all the luxuries and great goods that our society might bring us, I often think of that soul out there. I wonder how well his riches truly served him in the end? Did he achieve all he ever wanted? In his wealth and prosperity? Or did the claws of irony swoop down and cut him to ribbons on his 1000 thread count sheets?
What does Thoreau say in response? “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
The Mistake of Labor
I think it fair to say, Thoreau makes the argument correctly, that labor is a mistake.
A slight of hand of the capitalist, of the elite, of royalty (are they not all one in the same?).
It is not the encumbrances that we can bear that is the true test of success in life, but the number of them we can do without.
Is it better for the moderner to strive and toil all his long life in pursuit of wealth and the dream of leisurely life? Or, instead, the hermit who lives his life in a shack on the shoreline, who eats simply and owns little, and yet his life from beginning to end is full of lounging and thinking and pondering of the mysteries of life?
Who is happier? Who the more satisfied? More fulfilled?
Thoreau would argue, “…it’s not that we study how to make baskets that are worth men’s while to buy them, but to study, rather, how to avoid the necessity of selling those baskets in the first place.”
As I read this, I find myself climbing to my feet and clapping my hands over my head and yelling, “Yes, indeed! For this is the right and true path to enlightenment!”
People seem to have swallowed the hook, line and sinker. They “spend the best part of their lives earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.”
He goes on, “Why do we live with such hurry and waste? We are determined to be starved before we are even hungry.”
Oh, if I had only been exposed to Thoreau in childhood, as a teen. I would have given away all of my meager possessions and joined a ship and traveled the world or ran screaming, naked, into the wild woods, to make count all the days and nights that yet remain.
He argues on from the savage state, of which we classify as third-world. To every family they own a shelter that is to them the best.
Yet, in modernity, less than half of the townspeople own their own house. In the modern Decapolis, even fewer still.
What once would pay for an entire city of wigwams now afford one family or one person shelter from the proverbial storm.
As Thoreau states, “the wild man owns his shelter because it costs so little, while the city man rents because he cannot afford his own…so often, those who own are actually owned by what they possess.”
“Advancement!” becries the capitalist. “Innovation!” bemoans the inventor or business owner.
Yet, while our homes have been transformed, “we have failed to improve those who live in them.”
This crisis rings true.
Humanity is not better off than those who came before us. We are not any happier. In fact, we are much more the worse.
We forfeit the greater part of our lives, if not altogether its entirety, only to give it to the tax man upon our death or to doctors and lawyers and hospitals along the way.
But, of what, might the author propose, a solution to this insidious outrage? What could be the prescription that would serve as antidote to the evils elaborated above?
“Live free,” he says, “Uncommitted for as long as you possibly dare. Live cheaply. Live dearly. For, an honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers or ten toes. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”
As he described it, when asked why he went to live where he lived, “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not really ever lived.”
This is the key.
To the ever elusive happiness we all seem so eager to let slip through our fingers. To the satisfaction that comes from a job well done, from a product well made, from a purpose and direction and reason to get up and fight and strive and live.
“Live deep and suck out the marrow of life,” Thoreau tells us. “Instead of three meals, it might be best to reduce that to just one.”
Such tragedies we can avoid, by taking the advice of the man known for doing little. I think this book in particular has a lot to teach the modern man. The modern woman.
Let go of your traditions. Scuttle those doctrines of men. Live life today as if tomorrow it will end.
Until my next review…..
Excerpt from In the Meadow:
A second later, the engine roared to life, and Dawn glanced back, one last time, at the trailer she’d grown up in.
The empty yard.
The trail she’d blazed through the blackberries.
That gaunt looking trailer.
Everything she saw now looked so dirty and run down, almost a shambles.
It was like a dream.
Paul circled wide, then threw the truck in reverse and backed up. As he braked and put it back into drive, Dawn could see Harold’s place a few slips down.
Paul gave the truck some gas.
As they went by, she could see Harold standing outside, near his front door, motionless, watching them.
She didn’t mention the earlier conversation to Paul.
Why would she?
He was just a creepy ass guy, and one of the handful of things she didn’t have to deal with anymore.
They drove out the front gate of the trailer park, down the side street to the corner, Paul stopping for a moment as he waited on the traffic to clear.
He took her hand and smiled at her, then pulled out onto the highway, heading west.
They drove past the Ray’s Grocery Store, past the gas station, where Bart was out front, talking excitedly to the Desmond boy.
Paul kissed her hand and she smiled, laying her head back against the headrest.
There was nothing else standing in her way now.
As Dawn began to relax, she watched as her old life quickly dissipate into vapor in their wake.
For the first time in her life, she was leaving Oakridge. She was moving to an entirely different state, a new home, with the man of her dreams.
She’d never even been out of Oregon before.
“Now or never,” Paul said, as they drove past the trailhead sign, on the right.
Dawn tightened her grip on his hand.
She’d finally gotten her wish.
She was leaving Oakridge.
Buy my book In the Meadow to find out what Dawn will do as her perfect fairytale life begins to unravel. Are the girls calling out from the banks of the Skagit River trying to help her? Do they want to hurt her? What secrets will she find?
But, trust me when I say, this is going to be a roller coaster of a ride. People are dying all around her. Get started in this thriller story today and find out why they’re warning her…calling out to her….trying to tell her…to RUN!