What do we live for? We construct identities, and temporary sets of plans. We each conceal a drawer full of projects and premises which comprise our sense of purpose within the world. These plans, over time, solidify and harden; our personal drawers grow steadily (and unwittingly) smaller; we more and more rarely look beyond them. To abandon these plans would be to sacrifice personal meaning. Right?
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden effortlessly shatters the “personal playbook”, revealing, beyond it, a sublime universe of twinkling stars and shallow, clear streams. Purpose, to be sure, is no longer clear. Instead, however, we recognize that the peaceful, mysterious beauty of the universe makes such a purpose – as we had once imagined it – an utterly incomprehensible aim. Walden teaches us that the vast universe, and communion therein, can form a purpose in itself.
Thoreau, in a surprisingly indirect manner (a reader might constantly ask himself: “How did he do that?”), stretches and broadens the boundaries of the reader’s mind, to encompass, before long, the universe as a whole. He loves reading: “The noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds,” states Thoreau, and “In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal.” (1)
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” he continues. “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.” (1)
Thoreau impels a reevaluation of the “achievement mindset” which pushes me – and, I’m sure, many others – to work tirelessly and to fear wasted time. “My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock,” Thoreau remembers. “I have spent many an hour, when I was younger, floating over [the lake’s] surface as the zephyr willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on my back across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake… for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days.” (1)
And once, in the winter: “The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings?… We made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk, making amends then to Walden vale for the long silences… We made many a ‘bran new’ theory of life over a thin dish of gruel.”
Expanding the scope of the mind, from daily petty worries and inconveniences towards the unity and beauty of nature, is a noble exercise. Thoreau’s Walden makes the task a virtually effortless one. The reader’s mind, soon, begins to pull more and more into its domain, stretching towards the sky and universe. Before long, one enters (what I might safely call) a higher state of sober, calm, and all-encompassing awareness. But isn’t this the essence of progress of the mind?
I still want to get a Math PhD, and I still plan to work hard. This goal, however, takes on not lessened but enhanced value within the perspective offered by Walden; the goal assumes its place within a larger serene vastness. My plans are still intact, but now I value them just that much more. My life has not changed; it has only expanded.