Monday, November 29, 2010

Sitting By the Pond

¬ Henry David Thoreau’s little book called “Walden” is a touchstone of American literature. It is a primary example of Transcendentalism, perhaps THE most influential theological movement within Unitarian History, and it’s a forerunner in the tradition of American nature writing. This one little book, that was tells no particular story and reads almost as one man’s musings, like a journal really, is a literary workhorse. It’s impact has been tremendous.

As we heard earlier, it was a project of Henry David Thoreau’s. He set himself up in a one-room cottage outside of Concord Massachusets. It was his experiment to live deliberately. In fact the reading that we did together earlier was excerpted from the beginning of Walden. It sums up his intent pretty well. He went into the woods to live deliberately, to suck out the deepest and truest experience of life.

Today I want to talk a about the ways that Thoreau explores this new deliberate lifestyle. Three different aspects of the project are striking to us as outsiders, and those were precisely the themes that Thoreau was playing with for himself. The thing that comes to mind most readily is how he lived simply in a one room house for two years. He left behind many of the conveniences and comforts of his life, to live very simply.

The second theme of his project that we notice off the bat is the solitude involved. He didn’t head out into the wilderness with his family, Thoreau was intent on getting away from it all. He wanted some solitude, but it was for a very particular reason.

The third piece of Thoreau’s experiment, and the piece that I have the most trouble with, is his attempt at being self-sufficient. He set out to see how well he could thrive on his own, with just the natural world around him.

Let’s go back to his experiment with simple living for now. One of Thoreau’s primary concerns was that the pace of modern life was exploiting people, and separating them. Certainly, his life in the mid 1800s was a far cry from the age of the internet and videogames. And, he could not have imagined the environmental degradation and human exploitation that would follow. But he lived at the beginning of the American modern age.

He saw the railroad and the telegraph come into existence and intrude on Walden Pond. As production of textiles was mechanized, he pointed out that the huge cloth mills of New England weren’t being used to provide the world’s needy with clothing, but to earn unprecedented profits for the owners. These marvels of modern technology were used almost exclusively to make the people who owned them more rich. In his moment, Thoreau realized that an old way of life was fading. And he saw even then, that what was replacing it was not necessarily an improvement. (Stern, 8.)

For Thoreau, it became deeply important to unplug from the cycle of consumption and wealth. In his retreat to the woods, he deliberately engaged in a simpler life, a life that not only avoided technology, but saved time to savor the richness of nature the rhythm of simpler ways.

But, Thoreau was not an ascetic; he was not rejecting pleasure. Quite the contrary, he lived deeply and richly with appreciation for the natural world around him. He submerged his time in the simple yet rewarding tasks to baking bread, planting and harvesting vegetables, reading, and simply observing the world around him. In this two year experiment, Thoreau reorganized his appreciation from fabricated symbols of wealth, to the fecundity of the natural world. In short, simple living was not a sacrifice, but finding a different kind of richness.

In the past three years, Americans have had a hard lesson in simple living. Out of necessity many of us have changed our lifestyles, slowing down, consuming less, spending less. Out of necessity many of us have made a shift. Others of us have political and environmental motivations for the effort to live more simply. I’m reminded of the powerful saying, “Live Simply, so that Others May Simply Live.”

But what if we took a cue from Thoreau, what if we didn’t just sacrifice. What if we just took time to appreciate simpler things. Simple living doesn’t have to mean sacrifice, or at least it didn’t for Thoreau. Quite the contrary, it can mean, it should mean slowing down to appreciate the beauty that exists in our world at every moment, and slowing down to appreciate the rhythm and craft of our daily tasks. Thoreau knew that living simply was not about sacrifice, but a different kind of appreciation of beauty.

The second striking aspect of Thoreau’s experiment is the solitary nature of it. It seems odd to many of us that he would spend two years in the woods alone. He sounds like a bit of a hermit, well now that I say it, like the Unabomber. But that perception couldn’t be farther from the truth.
First of all, Thoreau was NEVER out of touch with what was going on in the wider world. He frequently entertained visitors, and he regularly read the newspapers. He was not totally isolated. But more importantly, we need to understand the purpose, and result of his retreat to the woods. Thoreau set out not to be a recluse, but to gain a more objective view of society by removing himself from it for a while.
His years at Walden were some of his most important years of writing and thinking. While there, he was deeply engaged in the affairs of the wider world. In 1846 he was arrested for not paying six years worth of poll taxes. After his arrest he refused to pay his taxes because of his objection to the Mexican-American War and slavery. But, against his wishes, the back taxes were paid by his aunt and he was released the next day.
That one night in jail is a little adventure that many of us know about Thoreau. But that one experience, was the source of perhaps his most influential piece of writing. Three years later, Thoreau published the essay Civil Disobedience, which deeply influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and an entire lineage of advocates for justice.

The social fabric of the United States was still in formation during Thoreau’s life. He bridged the careers of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. In his short lifetime, he saw the United States make tremendous promises in its founding ideals and documents. And he saw many of those promises squandered in the midst of slavery, exploitation of the working class and unnecessary warfare. Thoreau spoke out against the exploitation of Irish immigrants who had fled their own country to escape starvation. He was indignant about the treatment American Indians, who had been driven even farther west into territory that nobody wanted. And probably Thoreau’s strongest writings were in he rejection of slavery.
In his experiment at Walden, Thoreau wasn’t trying to escape from society. He was trying to take a small step back to get a little better perspective on the world that he lived in. And it seems to have paid off. Time and time again Thoreau stood on the right side of the debate. He seemed to have a sense of wider perspective on American society.

This attempt at gaining perspective on one’s own society is perhaps the most inspiring piece of Thoreau’s project. What he attempted, and seemingly achieved is one of the most difficult endeavors that we can make as humans. Stepping outside of ourselves to understand the social network that we participate in is tremendously difficult. Whether it is the network of our family, or our church, our country of our world, stepping beyond, to see our own role in that web of relationships is incredibly difficult, but also incredibly powerful.
Lately I have heard this effort to gain perspective, described as trying to take a view from the balcony. You can take any moment, and step out of yourself for just a moment, especially a moment that is heated. Take a moment to pause and look at the situation from above, as if you are looking down on it from the balcony. You can see how all the players work together to make the scene, including yourself.

What role do you play in the system? How do you benefit from maintaining that role? Who has the power over the resources? Who keeps this structure established? What would change if these relationships changed?

Every once in a while in our lives, we get a chance to step outside of ourselves to look at our world with fresh eyes. This is defiantly my favorite part of travel. When you get to know other cultures, you can see your own with fresh eyes. For Thoreau, he simply retreated to the woods for a short while to see American society with new eyes. But we don’t have to go to such great lengths to gain perspective. Any kind of travel can often do the trick, or just reading, learning about different ways of thinking and being in the world, helps us to see our own world anew.
We often think of Thoreau as a solitary wilderness guy. The one who went off and lived in a cabin alone by Walden Pond. But, Far from a loner, Thoreau’s heart and soul was engaged with the wider world. One of the most important things we can learn from his experiment at Walden is the power of gaining perspective on our own lives and our own society.

So finally, the third and final piece of Thoreau’s adventure that I want to talk about today is his quest to become self-sufficient. As I said before, Thoreau planted several different crops, chopped wood, baked bread. He did an amazing amount of work for himself at Walden. It’s pretty incredible. and easy for us to romanticize Thoreau’s efforts. We also usually think that such a lifestyle is far removed from any possible living in today’s world. But the truth is, it total self-sufficiency was impossible for Thoreau as well.
He was in regular contact with guests and went into town on occasion. But, those were not only social visits. He had food brought to him often. Also, we tend to think of him living in a little cabin. Well, it was little, but it was actually a one-room cottage, with a bed, a desk and other household goods.
I don’t mean to diminish Thoreau’s hard work or his creativity. I’d be pretty hard pressed to make due at Walden, especially for two whole years. But his experiment in self-sufficiency wasn’t all that independent. In fact, I wonder if it might not have been a little misguided. What I see Thoreau doing at Walden is exploring his independence from human community, while he nurtured and explored his relationship with nature. He made a dramatic shift in the focus of his attentions, but never became completely self-sufficient. In fact, quite the opposite from isolation or independence, Thoreau simply deepened his relationship with the natural world as he learned how much he depended on it.
One of the few pieces of Christian theology that sticks with me from seminary comes from St, Augustine. He talked about “disordered love.” He meant that as sinful humans, we have disordered love. Instead of loving God, we tend to love the world around us. I find this idea of disordered love very compelling, because it’s a way of talking about how we prioritize our relationships. We can choose where to place our affections, we can choose to love those things that are life-affirming rather than those that are trivial. To me, that is what Thoreau was experimenting with. He never became self-sufficient, an island unto himself. He simply re-arranged his priorities. He re-ordered his relationships and his loves.

So Thoreau’s attempt to be self-sufficient, points us, or at least me in a slightly different direction. He never achieved total self-sufficiency. But he did achieve something else. Thoreau managed a dramatic shift in his relationships, away from the trivial, and into the profound. He intentionally chose to deepen his relationship with nature, while letting the trivial relationships with the masses of society drift away. Perhaps he is not a model of independence, but a model of nurturing those relationships that are most sustaining and life giving.

As much as the actual book that he published, Thoreau’s experiment in deliberate living has inspired the imagination for generations. More than running away from society, Thoreau spent this time to engage his world in a more profound way. Perhaps the book and the experiment remain so prominent in American culture because of the lessons they still carry.

Live simply, not for the sake of sacrifice, but for the sake of enjoying the beauty that surrounds you everyday.

And, When you get a chance, take a step back from it all to gain a little perspective. You’ll have a much better understanding of your life situation and be able to deal with it more proactively when you return.

And finally, celebrate those relationships that are life affirming. Nurture them, cultivate them, because they are essential to thriving in this world.

For Thoreau and for us, being wrapt in wonder at nature is not about escape, but about touching a deeper knowledge. Going to the woods is a spiritual practice, and one that we all might benefit from now and then.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Kent. Wondering if you have read another paean of the sixties and seventies, The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance. It again points to being present with the task at hand and gleaning the metaphysical emanations therein.

    My current task at hand is taking the developing ideas of embodiment psychology and applying them to man's relation to nature. A work in progress...