Facing the holiday crowds and the calendar crowded with parties and special programs makes one yearn for Henry David Thoreau's solution to life: "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" His message in Walden (which continues to sell well both in books and cassette recordings) resonates with a deep yearning within us.
In 1845, at the age of 28, Thoreau asked the question, "Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?" His answer was to build a 10-by-15 foot cabin of boards and brick on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. A bed, desk and books completed his simple life.
But, it was not just a simple life Thoreau was after. His venture into discovering what could be pared in order to directly experience nature and self-culutre had its own utilitarian purpose: he was writing a book. His sojourn in the woods was for only 26 months, and his cabin was only a couple of miles from town. He wrote, I "had more visitors while I lived in the woods than any other period of my life." He made regular trips to town "to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there," and on Saturdays his mother and sisters brought him food. All of this is hardly the isolation and simplicity so implanted in our minds.
He sold his cabin (which was on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson) after two years and returned to Concord. He had discovered that life was best experienced in the "partially cultivated country" of Concord itself.
Although not the pure and simple experience of our desire and imagination, nevertheless Thoreau's attempt to find simplicity--even as he commuted from his cabin to town, even as his need for conversation carried him to gather with others, and even as he was dependent on family for sustenance--does strike a chord within us. Thoreau wrote later of Concord: "Here are all the friends I ever had or shall have, and as friendly as ever. A man dwells in his native valley like an acorn in its cap." So, Walden turns out to be a message of plain living within society, instead of a call to abandon jobs and society for some hermitic existence.
The mention of a hermitic existence recalls a time sixteen hundred years ago when, already in the third century, some Christians began to decry the worldliness of the church and sought greater spiritual purity by escaping to the Egyptian desert, there to live as hermits. St. Anthony, an early Thoreau, was the most famous. Eventually, they too found the need for companionship (a word that literally means 'sharing bread'), and monasteries came into being.
Rhapsodizing about escaping the city while navigating the
bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic (and listening to Walden
on tape) is the twentieth century version of a yearning found
in the nineteenth and second centuries (and all other centuries)
as well. Such voices help remind us of the deep yearning to not
measure our lives by quantity or updated goods and accomplishments.
They are a reminder also of the deep need to reflect on who and
whose we are, where we are and what we are doing, what we value
and what we are adding to human culture.
--Robert H. Tucker
14 December 1998