When it comes right down to it, Walden is about simplicity. I know, profound insight, right? But what I’ve realized about Thoreau’s simplicity is that it must be sought as much in the material world as in ourselves. It seems to me that finding that intersection could be the difference between happiness and misery for many modern readers.
As much as I try to fight it, I’m neck deep in our American consumer culture. And it is a fight, it truly is, to keep my head above the waters of rampant materialism. I’m a meticulous recycler, I have a passionate dislike of plastic bags, and I buy my coffee fair trade as often as possible. Nevertheless, when I walk into that Apple store or wander onto Amazon.com, I feel the monstrous magpie inside crying and wanting to be fed. It wants the shiny, the new, the cool, and sometimes it wins. In the future, though, I’ll have another voice to keep it quiet: the patient words of Thoreau:
“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names …. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is.”
Where are the voices like that these days? Where in our culture does anyone call for contentment? If those voices are out there, I don’t think they are being heard. There is everywhere pressure for faster, bigger, thinner, younger. Enough is never enough any more. If you try to keep up with even just one societal demand, it’s a sure path to frustration. When you buy that tiny new phone, it’s inevitable that a smaller, cooler one will be out in six months. The big companies are big because they know how to tempt the magpie. They not only make sure we feel like we need that SUV, they make sure we want a better one than the Joneses next door. We try to meet the demands by going after more money, but that’s like using a gas-tanker to put out a forest fire. “It looks poorest when you are richest,” Thoreau says, and I think he’s right. More money means more stuff to buy, and if you have more stuff, you need a bigger car to move it and a bigger house to store it all. Faster than you can say Visa, your house becomes, as George Carlin said, “a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”
What we need is a shift in thought if we’re ever to escape the stuff trap. The money, the material goods are nothing to Thoreau. They cannot solve any problems, especially those they create. He admires the penniless saying “the town’s poor seem to me to often live the most independent lives of any.” They are not tied down by having too much stuff, one of the things Thoreau was looking for in going to the woods. I think he counts himself as one of those poor, since his idea of living deliberately is as much about avoiding false expectations as anything else. If we teach ourselves to be content with what we have, and intentionally be grateful for simple blessings, we may find that “a quiet mind may live as contentedly [in poverty], and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.” The people I see around me everyday have many things, and so do I, but I don’t know that a quiet mind could be counted among them.
So, as much as Thoreau drones on about things like his bean garden and the ice on Walden Pond, his point becomes clear in the end. Happiness is only found in a peaceful mind, and that can only be reached through simplicity. In fact, the pages he spends describing innocuous things like ants, the depth of the pond, or the mice under his house are meant as object lessons. Not only do these things show Thoreau living the prescribed life, but it allows us to do the same through the act of reading about something we might never stop to observe. If Thoreau did indeed have a mission with this book (though he swears he didn’t), I think it was to lead by example and show us that while we don’t all need to move to the woods, we should remember that “money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” It’s wisdom the 21st century could well use.