FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER — MAY 15, 2013 —
COLUMN BY DARYL FISHER —
The other night my youngest son was helping me clean out an extra bedroom where I store lots of old stuff when he came across a box with the word “College” scribbled on the outside of it.
“What’s this?” he asked me as he opened the box and began thumbing through the discolored papers inside it.
“I think it’s just a bunch of old homework assignments I did way back when I was in college,” I answered.
“Boy, Dad, I only see one `A’ in here. The rest are mostly ‘C’s.”
“I was never much of a student,” I admitted. “Which paper did I get the `A’ on?”
“It looks like it was a report or something on one of Thoreau’s books. Were you into Thoreau when you were young?”
“Everyone was into Thoreau back in the late ‘60s when I was going to college. We all wanted to move to Walden Pond and build ourselves a cabin and live the simple life.”
“Who knows? It was a long time ago. If I remember right, we were going to change the world.”
“Well, since it looks like it was your only `A’ paper, do you want me to read some of it to you? It’s not very long.”
“Henry David Thoreau’s Walden contains one important insight after another,” began my son, “and what immediately draws the reader’s attention is the fact that the man responsible for those insights was considered an undistinguished loafer by those who thought they knew him best, a man who died a failure by contemporary standards of success. So maybe Walden’s first important insight is that important insights are often hiding out in places where one would least expect to find them.
“Thoreau, a sometimes teacher, pencil maker, surveyor and handyman, explains with clarity and simplicity that there is much more to life than the mind-dulling repetition of factory life. So the second important insight I find in Walden is that any life directed towards money and endless toil is a life directed towards death.
“The third important insight I can think of comes from Thoreau’s belief that one can resist the debilitating effects of the industrial revolution by reducing his or her needs to the barest essentials of life, and by establishing an intimate, spiritual relationship with nature. One needs only to consider turning back the clock to a more simple, agrarian way of living. Thoreau tells us that our only real needs are clothing, food, shelter, and fuel.
“Number four comes from the way Thoreau looked at work. He considered all work honorable and worked hard at those tasks he gave himself, but he also believed that we all need to reduce the time necessary to support ourselves. I think he would have agreed with the way Camus once put it: `It is normal to give part of your life so as not to lose it entirely. Six or eight hours a day so as not to die of hunger. And then everything is profit to those who know how to profit from it.’
“Fifth, in Chapter One, Thoreau reminds us that a major hindrance to personal growth and happiness is `The blind acceptance of traditional, conventional ways of living as handed down by previous generations. Too many individuals unquestioningly accept what their parents and grandparents believed to be the meaning of life.’ What a great insight that is — that each new generation needs to reinvent the world all over again.
“Sixth, that we can know God through nature, and that `each man, through the potential power of his intellect, has the ability to become god-like.’
“Seventh, that we often allow life to be `frittered away by detail.’ In Chapter Two, the narrator cries out, `Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.’
“Eighth, that `Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.’ In other words, good books can set us free. He also warns that we shouldn’t waste our time reading worthless, repetitive gossip and that shabby literature can create only shabby minds. Like the old Pete Seeger song says, we should try to avoid filling our heads with `garbage, garbage, garbage.’
“Ninth, in Chapter Four, I liked the way the narrator thinks of railroads and trains as the enemy and says, `I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing.’ The American Indian, who looked upon life and the earth much as Thoreau did, also understood early on that locomotives were bringing death to their world.
“Tenth, in Chapter Five, Thoreau hints that `in the gentle, benevolent, revitalizing company of nature, loneliness is an irrelevant concern.’ Since we’re all born and die alone, locked inside our own heads, that is an interesting and hopeful insight indeed.
“Eleventh, that `wherever a man goes, men will pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions.’
“Twelfth, that we are all capable of surviving our own `spiritual winters.’
“And finally, that `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.’
“Jeez, Dad,” said my son with a smile after he had finished reading and returned my ancient book report back into the box where he found it, “even way back in your college days you were pretty much full of s___, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
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