A Conversation with Thoreau on Simplicity

Reflection #2 for my American Renaissance class. I had to fast from some aspect of technology for awhile and then converse with Henry David Thoreau about living simply and deliberately.

* * *

For the sake of this reflection, I’m imagining that I’m a time traveler visiting Walden Pond in 1846, during the second year of Thoreau’s experiment. Thoreau, in all his wisdom and understanding, does not question a world in which I am a time traveler, and in our many conversations, I’ve explained in-depth the progression of technology in the century and a half that separates us.

Thoreau and I sit in two of his chairs in his cabin at the pond. We each have a drinking cup filled with water from Walden Pond, and he sucks on a peppermint, one of those soft ones that everyone loves. With every trip, I bring him some small token from my present-time, and peppermints are his favorite.

I tell Henry that I gave up Facebook for most of five days, save for the occasional message requiring an immediate response. He nods slightly but remarks, “I still don’t understand the obsession of your society with Facebook and the internet. Are you not overwhelmed constantly?”

“Yes,” I state emphatically. “But, somehow, everyone is used to the constant overload of information. Henry, you’re seen as an anomaly in my world. You’re revered for your ‘living deliberately,’ and you’re admired, but most people, in reality, believe that living simply and deliberately is impossible. Even I believe that sometimes.”

“Do you think five days away from Facebook allowed you to live more deliberately?”

“In some ways, yes. I found that I didn’t miss reading about the trivialities of everyone’s day. Knowing what those hundreds of people ate for lunch or how they celebrated Valentine’s Day in no way improves my life. You worried about how the railroad would transform the world, Henry, but I don’t think you could have ever imagined how a keyboard and a computer screen could make our lives so mundane. No one has time to sit around and contemplate truth, or read classic works of literature written in Latin, or even listen and observe Nature. We’re slaves to a world of technology.”

Thoreau looks troubled. Though I’ve explained computers and iPods and the like to him, he can never truly understand. “You must fight this. You must simplify your life. What have you done instead of Facebook to simplify your life?”

“It’s hard, Henry, but there was one moment I wanted to tell you about. I sat on my front porch one day during my fast from Facebook. I was reading your book—the one you’re going to write about the time you’ve spent here. Though it was February, the day was one of those magnificent early spring days. The birds were returning to South Carolina, and I heard several chirping in the tree just behind my house. There was also a squirrel in one of the bushes in front of my house. I saw his tail twitching and heard his little chirps. In that moment, I was completely free from technology. I wasn’t listening to music, and I wasn’t reading status updates, and I wasn’t constantly check the news from other parts of the world. I was existing simply in that moment, with the breeze blowing and listening to the animals, and I realized that your simple living is incredibly beautiful.”

Henry smiles encouragingly. “How will you continue this?”

I pause, afraid of disappointing him. “I can’t keep that up forever, though. I don’t live in a world where that’s possible. In Walden, you will write about how your time at the pond is just one life among many that you live. Even you can’t sustain this life forever. I’ll have to live deliberately in other ways. I can enjoy moments of Nature, but I also find fulfillment in other ways of living.”

“Living deliberately will not look the same for you, and you need to realize that. I came to the woods because I wish to live deliberately, but you obviously don’t need to do that, too. Find those moments where life is truly sublime, where you fulfill the purpose for which you have been created. Work hard, seek adventure, and accomplish your goals. Seek truth and understanding in every moment, and cut out all the excess of life that doesn’t lead you to wisdom and a great knowledge of your world.

I nod. “I can do that.”

Henry slaps his hands against his knees and stands. “How long are you staying?”

I stand, too. “Awhile. Need some help in the bean-field?”

“Of course!” he says and strides to the door. Before I turn to leave the cabin, I pull a small bag of peppermints from my pocket and leave them on Henry’s table. He’ll appreciate the simple gift, I’m sure.

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One thought on “A Conversation with Thoreau on Simplicity

  1. utprosim says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed your visit to Walden!

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