Ah the “olden times” when people lived on acres of untarnished land with the sun sparkling on clear waters. The song of birds could be heard for miles, and trees grew mighty and plentiful. All the men had impressive facial hair, and the ladies wore more petticoats and layers than Helena Bonham Carter on a red carpet. It was a simpler time (maybe not so much the ladies’ clothing) than anything we know today.
But in those days, a man named Henry David Thoreau disagreed. He felt the world had become corrupt with greed and progress, slovenly and materialistic. Naturally, he did what any intellectual of the time would do: go off to live in the woods for two years without possessions and live very simply and quietly. Today, we know this practice as what Daniel Day-Lewis does to prepare for a film role, but in Thoreau’s time, Method Actors didn’t exist yet.
Thoreau kept careful records of his experiment in Walden, and when he returned, he published them. The resulting tome, Walden (I mean, seriously, Thoreau? Couldn’t you be a teeny bit more creative with that title?), is chock full of lots of great advice about life, wealth, nature, etc. It is a classic piece of literature (which I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis has read several times over).
Now, I haven’t read Walden all the way through, and admittedly, some of its advice I culled from multiple viewings of Dead Poets Society, in which it is often quoted. However, what I HAVE read of Walden is spectacular, thought-provoking stuff. And it got me wondering:
In an era dominated by an incessant need for technology, to be, essentially, “plugged in” at all times, could any of us do what Thoreau did? Could we fully detach ourselves from the world for a year or two and live without our smart phones, tablets, laptops, and iPods? What would Thoreau think of all this connectivity?
I’m not so sure any of us (save for the Amish who already live in isolation and the aforementioned Mr. Day-Lewis) could actually do, in this smart phone era, what Thoreau did in his time. First of all, you’d have to search fairly thoroughly to find a remote enough piece of land. Perhaps in Greenland or Tibet (for seven years with Brad Pitt? Down!) or some place like that, a new “Walden”-like scenario would be possible, but getting to those places is not the easiest thing to do. Also, should you go alone, the chances of a 127 Hours-cutting-your-arm-off-with-a-plastic-knife situation increases.
Now, Thoreau wrote to colleagues during his time in the woods, so it wasn’t as though he was completely cut off from the world. He also had at least 25-30 visitors to his cabin including a French Canadian woodchopper and a runaway slave. But he cast off the idea of needing wealth to be happy, needing industry and competition. He went back to the core of human struggles: man versus nature. But really, Thoreau was seeking a way to reunite man WITH nature; to bring us back from our man-made world to the natural one with which we began our journey on this earth.
Our world is so interconnected that in a matter of seconds, one can text Russia or send an email to Patagonia with little difficulty whatsoever. It’s both amazing and overwhelming at the same time. We have an almost Pavlovian response to our cellphones; the minute we hear a ding indicating a new text or voice message, we instantly pick up our phones. We are so afraid of missing out on some piece of information (however insipid or important), we cannot go for three seconds without gazing at its glowing screen. We have to have reminders every time we go to the theatre or the movies to turn our phones off; to detach ourselves from the outside world. We are incapable of doing it ourselves without someone else telling us. Those afraid of the zombie apocalypse should note that we already live in a world full of zombies; one need only look at all the people walking down the street staring at their phones instead of where they’re going. And let’s not even talk about how most people are so uncomfortable with being alone in a public place, they immediately pick up their phones to avoid making eye contact with someone or god forbid actually strike up a conversation with a stranger. Solitude once was greatly valued, but now, it scares us, and our phones are the proof.
I’m as guilty as anyone of being too dependent on my phone and other pieces of technology. I am uncomfortable, at times, with being alone in certain places. Actually, it’s more that I think everyone is judging me for being alone, which is not only presumptuous but also narcissistic: to think everyone is focusing on me when they actually couldn’t care less. I often get caught up too in assessing my wealth (or lack of it, more like), obsessing over it ad nauseum until I wear myself out. And sometimes, I catch myself in the midst of all this stressing and obsessing and think about how pointless it all is; none of it matters or SHOULD matter. It doesn’t make me happy, so why worry about it?
Living in New York City, the hive of human activity and industry, makes Walden’s naturalistic ideals ever more appealing. Whenever I start to feel like I’m working myself into a snit or getting caught up in the stupidity of text messages and Facebook wallposts, I dream of getting out and disappearing. My more bohemian, nomadic tendencies begin to manifest themselves inside my head. Escape, they say. Go backpacking through Europe or on a mountain trek. See the redwood forests. Leave all this behind; you don’t need it. There is no escaping Thoreau’s logic:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”
Thoreau sought to illustrate the necessity of LIFE, and the place it is most evident is in nature; a never-ending cycle of birth and death, changing seasons, etc. In living in nature, Thoreau learned HOW to live, what made him happy, what kind of person he wanted to be. He was connected to the world in a different way, one free of selfish desires and thoughts, and that made connecting with others more fulfilling. We should all aspire to such things ourselves; I know I do.
As technology advances, it will become harder and harder to detach ourselves from the world around us, but ironically, we already have. Actual human connection has been replaced with coaxial cables and wi-fi routers. We live in a world of instant messages and tweets. No face-to-face communication required. The only way to live Thoreau’s way is to learn how to actually BE alone and to be okay with it. To look up from our cold, hard, plastic phones and really SEE the world around us. To listen to sounds other than the ones on our iPods. Being alive means being PRESENT; living in the moment. I, for one, don’t just want to look at pictures of places on Google images, I want to see them for myself. I want to learn how to live deliberately and then actually LIVE deliberately; connecting with the world on MY terms…not just the way the smart phone companies tell us to.
These days, we have to work a little harder to embody all the things Thoreau wrote about in Walden, but I think it would be worth it in the end. You won’t remember every text someone sent you, but you WILL remember how you felt the first time you saw the Canadian Rockies or the Yangtze River in China. Experience and love and memories are things no amount of money can buy you and no web search can show you; they have to be felt and gained through the way you live your life. Thoreau understood that, and so do I these days.
After all, Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t win two Oscars by playing Words With Friends all day long.