Time is already a tough customer, but it is torturous when you start measuring yourself to others by it. Henry David Thoreau was my age, thirty, when he sat down to write Walden. What does that mean for me? Not much, I suppose, since my copy sits unread and unloved. Worse yet: feared. I am scared it will reinforce my hunch—yes, modern life is too much, and each day is getting much more much-er. The only sane option is to opt out of the game and become a recluse, because you can not lose if you do not play. This is, at least, what the fabricated Walden in my mind says. “Go—flee. It is the only way. Your life, your mistakes, and this world are baggage. Find a virgin plot, build a foundation, and start fresh.”
Then again, I doubt the Thoreau in my mind and the one on the page, because the things I’m being told to run from are all that I have. A man only writes about his self-inflicted extraction to an ersatz wilderness because he wants to consider his problems under the auspice of the world’s. Who’d trust the opinion of such a weary, indignant, callow, and conflicted young man? I say this describing myself, too.
Thirty is a tender age. A man is old enough to have a past he regrets, young enough to feel he has a stake in the game for righting the course, and self-obsessed enough to have a hyper-vigilant sense of justice. I feel it. It is genetic, or specific to the privileged archetype Thoreau and I share. I try to beat it down. Thoreau ran away and wrote a book. Last year, when I swallowed my pride, contained my fear, and started to read Walden, I only made it 15 pages before throwing it across the room. I identified too much, and saw myself reflected, 150 years in the past, still just as foolish and making the same mistakes I make today.
Some questions I’d like to ask the ghost of Mr. Thoreau, in the purpose of extreme self-interest: Did escaping modern life leave you feeling curiously trapped? Were you running away or running towards? And, most importantly, were you ever able to reconcile the tension between enjoying the world and trying to set it straight? I want to ask because Thoreau ostracized himself, and seclusion, for some, can be just as addicting as any drug. It’s a defacto solution that feeds the problem which requires itself as a solution.
Life is a set of nested envelopes—the seed of you is held in the mind, which is in your body, which is encased in your family, your relations, workplace, city, nation, society, and so on. Thoreau eliminated all the layers and kept only the ones he couldn’t escape: nature and his mind. But I wonder if this was a mistake. What if those fussy middle parts between the mind and nature weren’t a crutch, but the third leg of a stool? Perhaps the real reason Walden scares me is the same reason it has offended so many others: that third leg Thoreau disparaged is where I put most of my weight.
There’s a version of Walden already written in my mind by the Thoreau within, cooing the things the weak part of me wants to hear, like the ghost of previous mistakes echoing across the centuries. I’ll take a lesson from Thoreau’s trip to the woods and speak from the side of me that knows better: people don’t have to leave what they know to start fixing what’s wrong. They can start where they are. A man can do it right here.