Way back in the day, when I was first applying to college, I wrote a college entrance essay quoting a book that impacted me greatly at the time. This book was “Walden,” by Henry David Thoreau. The essence of my college-entrance essay: that I wished to live a life of my ideals, choosing what really mattered and letting go of what didn’t.
(Side note: I ended up dropping out of the school I used that essay to get into. Apparently it didn’t square with those ideals!)
Despite my immaturity in many respects as an insecure teenager at the time, I was blessed with an instinct for authenticity and strength of character. I appreciated learning about as well as from inspiring and courageous people I encountered in my academic and musical studies. I saw greatness in some of the historical figures I read about in AP US History and AP European History, as well as in some of the authors I read in English. I saw it in Beethoven and other composers I studied.
And I saw it in Thoreau. There was a spirit about this thinker that stood out for me among the great thinkers and artists I got to know in school. I enjoyed Thoreau’s preference for a simple life, connecting with oneself and with nature, and shunning materialism. At the same time, I resonated with his gentle and poetic nature. He struck me as a kind man, not an over-bearing and righteous soul, but a thoughtful man who was inspired by life and mused eloquently on his vision of an ideal world. I admired what I saw as a great example of a man who thought for himself and forged his own path, while not completely rejecting his fellow man, even as he openly disagreed with him over many things.
A few weeks ago, my mom, my wife and I were at a bookstore in Old Sacramento, and I saw “Walden” in the bookshelf. I was instantly intrigued, and I wondered, How would I take to this book after so many years? Would it still inspire me? Happily, my mom bought it for me as an early birthday present (my birthday is coming up next week, on April 22nd).
I’m glad to say that Thoreau ages well! In fact, I think I am much better able to enjoy this book now, as I can absorb his message while being comfortable in my own skin. In other words, I can take what I like about it, and leave the rest!
This is not something I was capable of doing back in high school and college. Back then I was not confident in my own point of view. I often acted as if I thought I owed some sort of personal obedience to my mentors (apparently even those who had been dead for 150 years). Deep down, I was deeply insecure about myself and didn’t fully know or appreciate who I was. I often felt a compulsion to change who I was and adopt a completely different way of being. This may show my openness to new ideas. It also shows my utter lack of self-confidence.
That said, I didn’t suffer too much over Thoreau’s message specifically. However, I do remember trying to suppress some mixed feelings about him. Even though I was inspired by him, I did not permit myself to look critically at which parts about his philosophy really resonated with me, and which did not. And while cheering on his example, I was judging myself, imagining his way of being to be superior (and mine immensely inferior).
Nowadays, I am, all in all, secure in my own point of view and my right to think for myself. I am enjoying being able to read this book without all the confusing bullshit that afflicted my head in those days. I so much prefer not having to agonize over someone else’s point of view, thinking that I have to abandon my own!
In fact, I think I may actually be living the essence of his message now more than I ever could back then. I think this famous line summarizes his message:
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”“Walden,” Conclusion, p340
In other words, Think for yourself, and be your own man! It is nice to know that, after all this time, I may have fully embraced this.