Every year as I teach Thoreau, I’m at least inspired to question the choices in my life, to contemplate the reasons why I do what I do. And every year, inevitably, I understand more and more about what he says. Many of us just work too hard, and we don’t leave enough time in our lives to really enjoy or savor anything. When we do have spare time, we end up running around doing this and that or using the technology that was supposed to make our lives easier to accomplish more and more. I try my best to savor my life and enjoy my many and varied experiences. I try not to get caught in the trap of working for more and more stuff that I don’t need anyway or valuing my own money too much. But it is sooo hard in this world where we are consumers of EVERYTHING, and the media tells us all about the things we need. Technology is seen as an all-powerful force that helps us immensely, and we must always push for progress. Being alone or sitting still is seen as a little peculiar to say the least. Life is all about the bottom line and getting the job done and working hard, but little focus is spent on anything internal. As Thoreau would say, “What about our own happiness, our own passions?” He always reminds me to drop out of the rat race or at least to slow down a little, enough so that I become out of sync with the masses. To at least question my own choices.
“It is never too late to give up our prejudices.” This is such a statement of hope for ourselves and those around us. It is never too late to give up the preconceived notions that we have. In other words, it is never too late to change our ways. All of us have work to be done in our lives, and Thoreau tells us it is never too late to do that work. (Of course, he refers to work to be done on ourselves, not things like cleaning our houses). It also gives me great hope for the state of our country. I keep hoping that one day racism will disappear although it certainly hasn’t yet.
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. How many of us use only mechanical aids to keep us awake? Caffeine addiction and other forms of mechanical aids, Thoreau is completely against. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to awaken every morning because of our “infinite expectation” instead? Again, he gives us hope here. Our lives are what we make of them, and it is our jobs to come up with the things that help us to sustain our passion and zest for life. Sometimes in the daily grind, we get so bogged down with all that must be done, that we forget to take some time out for ourselves. We forget to do the things that make life truly worth living in the first place. For me, that is spending quality time with my daughter and writing. Recently I have begun to make an effort to do more of both, and let some of the other “necessities” of my life slide. This is much easier said than done when you consider all the pressure there is to achieve and obtain in this world. However, taking this time has made me a happier life and given me more of a sense of purpose than I could ever get from cleaning my house or going to work.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.” Yes! How can we go about finding more ways to carve and paint our atmosphere? In other words, how can we make a difference in the lives of those around us and ourselves? We need to take more time to make our lives what we know they could be, to become the people we know WE could be, if we just didn’t have so much other “stuff” to do. By spending time with our children or volunteering for a cause we are passionate about or simply developing relationships with other people, we are “carving” our atmosphere.
“I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.” We are just too darn busy. Think about those of us who live by our calendars or palm pilots, or the like. We have so many things going on that we need to keep finding new ways to keep ourselves organized. Thoreau would tell us we are doing way too much, and I truly wonder whether he is right. Sometimes we don’t even enjoy the things we truly like because they just feel like another obligation in our obligation-filled world. Are there things you can get rid of in your lives or cut back in order to give you a better quality of life?
“It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or men, is a little uncertain.” Technology drives us to do more and more, but does it add to the richness of our lives. We think we MUST do all this “stuff” to advance in the world, but we spend no time thinking about ourselves and our lives? How does your life advance? How can we become better people? These questions remain unanswered.
“Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand actions and stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence. When do we actually get time off to sit and relax or to do the things we WANT to do? We work, work, work today so that we can take some time tomorrow, but when tomorrow comes, we work, work, work again, and so forth. We must be busy all the time, and many of us never just are still. We think we will kick back maybe when we retire, but let’s face it. Many of us can’t retire for monetary reasons. Many of us never make it to retirement. Many of us have health problems by the time we get there that prevent us from doing all the things we thought we were going to do. And many more of us go back to work right away because we have never learned how to be still, never learned how to be interested in anything but work. I call this a sad state of affairs. I try NOT to work so hard in my life.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Don’t you just want to believe this? It’s kind of the new age philosophy that you control the things that come to you in life by the things that you give to life. I believe it, and I think a lot of us need to work pretty hard to discover what our true dreams even are, much less how to get to them. But you can’t go wrong trying to live the life you have imagined.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”Our dreams and goals are supposed to be lofty, but we need to do the hard work that comes with following them. We need the foundation that allows us to reach for our dreams. In other words, he encourages us to dream big but also to follow through in achieving our dreams
“Let every man mind his own business and endeavor to be what he was made.” We need to spend more time worrying about ourselves and much less time worrying about others. Why, for example, do we need celebrity gossip? If we spent as much time worrying about ourselves and trying to make our lives more worthwhile as we do worrying about celebrities, the world would most definitely be a better place. Live your life to be what you believe you were meant to be and have the impact you were meant to have on the world.
“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” We are a society who wants everyone to behave the same way. We all say that differences are what make us unique or differences make life fun, but that’s until those differences become things we disapprove of. For example, diversity is fine in this country, but everyone MUST speak English. What sense does that make? We need all kinds of people in the world but not homosexuals because they are just plain wrong. Does that make sense to you? Why can’t we just allow people to be who they are and refrain from judging? We don’t have to like or even approve of the ways that others live, but we can respect their rights to do so and they can respect ours. Thoreau just wants every person to be who he/she was meant to be, not who society dictates he/she should be so as to fit in. Conformity is the wrong thing to do, and yet, we all do it to some degree. Nobody wants to be ostracized, but we don’t’ want to be clones of each other either. I agree with Thoreau that we should let people be who they are. I hope these truly inspire you to live your lives differently, the way they do me. Sometimes really good literature just has a way of helping us to get our lives in perspective.