Life Lessons from Henry David Thoreau


The first time I read Thoreau’s Walden, I’d just turned fifteen years old and had never once set foot west of St. Louis, Missouri. Still in high school and painfully unaware of the immense depth beneath that thing I kept hearing about called “the real world,” I read Walden not because I was all that interested in Thoreau or the book itself but rather because it was on a list of literary mainstays assigned to me a few years previously by one of my English teachers who noticed my embryonic yen to be a writer. This list, said she, contained the names of the best books ever composed in the English language, and if I really wanted to be a writer someday, these were the books I’d need to ingest beforehand, the better to develop my intellect and vocabulary. Since I was primarily an introverted young boy (except in the company of females who happened to fit my fastidious criteria), I earnestly began to make my way through the list, which included  distinguished titles such as Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Camus’ The Stranger, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books (paired with The Hobbit) just to name a few.

When I purchased my copy of Walden, I knew only that its author, Henry David Thoreau, was one of the 19th century’s Transcendentalists, but I didn’t know what that meant exactly. I also didn’t know what to expect from the book, but oh, I soon found out. As I read it, I became romantically enamored with the idea of a man shunning regular society to live in quiet seclusion in the woods, as Thoreau does in Walden, and yet to my relatively inexperienced mind at that time, I couldn’t quite comprehend what such an experience would be like. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I finally went west and beheld with trembling wonder the stirring and transportive beauty of Nature (driving through Colorado and Wyoming and Montana will do that to you). Nevertheless, even in my youthful ignorance at age fifteen, Walden had an enormous impact on me, not only on my bourgeoning development as a writer but also on my growing individualistic views toward life itself, views that have remained with me and influenced much of what I’ve become.

Of all the various nuggets of perfection to be found within the pages of that great book, one of the passages that stands out the most is, unfortunately, the one that most people can quote even if they have never read the book. It’s a famous passage, referenced on many a greeting card and bookmark, yet filled with more profundity than could ever be grasped by the uneducated multitudes:

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, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

I am overcome by the treasure trove of statements here. To drive life into a corner… I know all too well what Thoreau meant by that. I too feel a similar, continuous urge. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… Oh, what a beautiful, powerfully haunting statement of what I feel every damn day of my life! And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. Yes, I too dread that specter which hovers above dreamers like Thoreau and me, that hateful thought of coming to the end of life and, upon looking back, realizing that we hadn’t actually lived or spent our time well. And although Walden is a book about going out into Nature to chase down true life, one doesn’t necessarily have to do that. Real life can be found anywhere. You don’t have to go to the woods to live “deliberately.”

But do you have to be alone to do it? Maybe not, though it certainly aided Thoreau. And given my current feelings toward the world and the people in it, I suspected it would help me as well. But being alone, especially on purpose, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. We’re taught through the conveyance of societal propaganda—films, shows, songs, books, cards, magazines, and the like—that happiness is to be found only in being with other people. Spouses, significant others, family, friends, coworkers… The overwhelmingly loud and blatantly invasive message of pretty much everything we see in culture is crystal clear: if you’re alone, you’re a loser. To be alone, according to popular opinion, is to somehow fail. You need to be surrounded by people, this message says—people who care about you, people you’ll trust, people you can be vulnerable with, people who will be there for you when the proverbial shit hits the fan. Family, we’re told, is one of the best institutions on this planet, which any wholesome, healthy, happy person embraces. To be in love, the poets tell us, is to be alive. Sitting at home with no one to talk to—this is considered too awful to accept. The “friendless rogue” who meanders in darkness and solitude is thought to possess nothing any sane person would envy. Why rest on your sofa and read a book when you can stumble home from the nearest bar after having raised way too many glasses with people you may not like if alcohol weren’t in the picture? Or why meditate within yourself when you can be distracted from such things by the pitter-pattery little feet of riotous offspring running through your house? No, the message is loud and oh so fucking clear: if you want any possible shot at being happy, you must surround yourself with other people, no matter what.

There’s strength, we are told, in numbers.

Strength in numbers. Perhaps that was true when humans were hunters and gatherers wandering around for food on the steppes of Africa. Perhaps that was true when white families were moving west in covered wagons through land that didn’t belong to them but rather to their dark-skinned, unwelcomed neighbors. Maybe it was true when chaos and wanton cruelty reigned supreme, as in the Dark Ages of Medieval Europe or the American “Wild West.” But is it still true today? Perhaps not. After all, we who populate this little planet have fashioned a lifestyle for ourselves that, for good or ill, has redefined what words such as need and survival mean. Ergo, maybe “strength in numbers,” while being a crucial philosophy in those yonder days of yore, has today evolved into something more of a hindrance.

Or perhaps these are just the disgruntled rants of an introverted misanthrope? Maybe. Maybe not. Scratch the paint off of a misanthrope and you’re likely to find a wounded humanitarian underneath. Besides, I’m not sure I’d describe myself as a misanthrope. Indeed, misanthropes despise people whereas I only mildly dislike them. I don’t abhor my species. I love my species—I just don’t want much to do with most people, but I don’t think that makes me a misanthrope. It makes me, well… a bit of a dissident.

Nor do I oppose the importance of family and friends. To be sure, there’s a comforting, reassuring fortitude that spreads through one’s being when, in the healthy presence of friends and family, love, trust, and acceptance are being exchanged. The problem is that such an experience, while ideal, is usually the exception, not the rule. Most families are dysfunctional. True, a person can live with a certain amount of dysfunction (and some writers flourish on it), but all too often the amount of dysfunction found in the average home grossly exceeds that which is tolerable. The result is that humans from all over the planet are growing up without approval, acceptance, affection, and all the other similar adjectives. Families all over the world are torn into pieces by differences of opinions, divergent lifestyles, abusive tendencies, infidelities, and an awful lack of basic communication skills—all of which are in some way contingent upon what a particular society is or is not saying about the current values of a given historical period. If the family is supposed to be the bedrock upon which is built the emotional development of our species, we’re fucked, because the family has failed.

As to the importance of friends, I admit I’ve experienced a few friendships in my time that were singularly beneficial to me, to say nothing of being profoundly rich and transformative. Yet I cannot escape the knowledge that the closest friend I’ve ever had, a man who was like a brother to me, eventually betrayed me and revealed himself to be the very antithesis of everything I value in humanity. Not that my experiences have any bearing on the species as a whole, or that the fallout from my damaged friendships necessarily means your friendships are hopeless. I can only offer what I have discovered through repeated experience: given enough time, most people will let you down. Some versions of being let down are maneuverable. That is, you can get past the infraction (if indeed you have any kind of heart within yourself and are not predisposed toward anger and resentment). But some versions of being let down are just not maneuverable. Sometimes the people you love and trust the most are the ones who will twist and crush your soul into an irreparable bit of wreckage.

I would know.

As a man of evidence and an unwavering advocate of the inevitability of logical deduction, I must submit what should be clear: the truest brand of strength that could ever be experienced by a human being is that which comes not from others but rather from self. Yes, whatever beauty comes from loving someone else, whatever assurance comes from knowing that someone has your back, whatever sense of identity you might derive through the approval and acceptance of others—none of it could possibly compare to that which you can and should be deriving from yourself. After all, the people you love might come and go. Family members perish. Friends might depart. Spouses leave. But as long as you’re alive, the only person who will always be there, the only person who will be continuously accessible, the only person who’ll be left standing after everyone else falls is you. You, within your own self, are the last ally when all others have been driven away. Consequently, you are the most important ally. If you cannot trust yourself, trusting someone else doesn’t mean much.

So, is there strength in numbers? Perhaps. No, the answer is probably. But there’s certainly strength in self. Or rather, there can be. Sadly, most people live as though they are their own worst enemy rather than their greatest ally, and there are an infinite number of reasons as to why that is the case. But if those reasons, whatever they may be, could be overcome, perhaps the lay of the land on Earth could look very different.

As it stands now, the lay of the land is a miserable one. We are a species of creatures disconnected from each other and, worse, disconnected from ourselves. The human race is like a window that cannot be shut—it’s continually gaping open, letting the unwanted in and allowing the riches to spill out. We have no footing, no foundation, no ground, no center. We look within ourselves and there’s nothing there, nothing to stand on, nothing to hold on to, nothing to steady us. We float about and it’s excruciating. All we want is to land, but we never can because there’s nothing on which to land. Our individual inner worlds are holocaustic debris fields of ghastly holes, unhealed wounds, and nagging pain. To be human is to hurt. Or, as first the Buddha and then later Nietzsche said, to live is to suffer. Existence is agony.

Why then should human beings consider looking inward for their strength? Why should they seek stability from within when all they see there is utter desolation and emptiness? It therefore makes perfect sense, when you think about it, that our societies should be as they are. Homo sapiens, who once may have held way more promise than they do now, have become a medicated, sedated race of willing zombies who lurch from one diversion to the next, never stopping to evaluate the sanity of it all, never stopping to address the underlying cause, never stopping to recall, even for just the tiniest of moments, that life is supposed to be lived deliberately, not passively, not detachedly, not with a stoic shrug of the shoulders and a half-hearted commitment to maintain a level of basic functionality. Life should be driven into a corner, not casually discarded like a lot of crumpled-up paper. Life is supposed to be lived… not just endured.

The paradox here is that the deteriorating state of the collective human psyche is not our fault, even though it is totally our fault. We did this to ourselves, to be sure. Nonetheless, the relationship between humans and the Universe in which they live seems to have erected a reality that made this deterioration inevitable. Each one of us is born into this system and, as fish are born into water—water in which they must remain if they are to survive—this is all we know. We had no say in the matter when we exited the womb and took up residence in this fucked-up region we call existence. Things were this way when we got here. It’s not our fault; yet it is our fault. Why? Because each of us, after having arrived here, has a responsibility to do something about it, to change it somehow, even if only by tiny degrees. Some people do that, but nowhere near enough. (I’m not talking about people who lend their talents to literature or filmmaking or art, nor those who heal wounds or perform surgery or lead nations. All of those are fine, but contributing to the Zeitgeist, such as it is, does not necessarily help free those who come after us—it may help to entertain, amuse, enlighten, or inspire—but if the condition within their broken hearts isn’t altered for the betterment of the species, it ultimately doesn’t mean much.)

Ergo, what we have here is two-fold: a species of creatures who 1) need to draw their strength from self, and 2) have lost the ability to do so. And while marriage and family and friendship and fellowship are all healthy things—they will ultimately continue to fail all around us because connecting two or more broken “selves” together does not a healthy, helpful situation make. If I have nothing inside to cling to, and neither do you, what good does it do for us to marry our deficiencies together? Two aching souls, when merged, are still two souls that ache. It’s therefore far better to get yourself whole than worry about how many friends you have or whether you are going to meet Mr. or Mrs. Right.

But no one wants to do that. To journey within oneself and do battle with what’s found there is a task for which only a few volunteer. It’s too difficult, requires too much time and energy and effort, and ultimately seems impossible anyway. Indeed, when you feel defeated before you even begin, how are you to stay motivated? And why bother, anyway, when there are so many diverting streets to get lost down, such as professional sports and sex and Netflix and drugs and food and chocolate and parties and going on vacations and abusing alcohol and the fucking Internet and whatever else people use to medicate their ache and distract themselves from their appalling deficiency of inner peace. The principal manifesto of our species seems to be a simple one: turn the TV on, turn up the radio, go to a bar and get lost in the mindless chatter and forget the fact that you are hurting, that you’re not whole, that you secretly long for the kind of life that has been driven into a corner, all while believing you’ll never actually experience it.


Thoreau said he went into the woods because he wished “to live deliberately.” I have always been haunted by that phrase, mostly because it seems to represent some long-forgotten approach to interacting with existence—forgotten, it seems, even in Thoreau’s day. The phrase is very evocative, and it occurred to me just then that I didn’t fully understand everything it implied. And so, as was/is my ongoing custom, I packed my pipe, lit it, and went outside to smoke and think deeply underneath a (somewhat) star-filled night sky.

“Living deliberately.” I repeated the words aloud several times, scrutinizing their apparent meaning (although I have come to understand that often the best nuggets of wisdom are derived when you discover a word’s less-than-apparent meaning—the hidden connotations that lurk just below the surface of most words but which are so often unnoticed by those who, unlike me, do not err on the side of the logophile[3]). I recalled the meaning of the word deliberate. As an adjective, it means “done with intention,” “done on purpose,” or “done carefully.” As a verb, it means “to consider deeply” or “to think carefully.” For instance, I might say, “The judge deliberated the verdict for quite a while” (verb usage), or, “She was deliberate as she crept down the hall” (adjective usage). Related words would be calculated, weighed, thoughtful, measured, premeditated, and meticulous. Ergo, the overwhelming subtext of the word deliberate involves the idea of approaching a certain matter, whether it be the sealing of an envelope or the living of one’s life, with a sense of extreme care, caution, and purpose, to be intentional in one’s activities. Indeed, if one considers the antonyms of deliberate, words like careless, unwitting, sloppy, casual, and indifferent, it becomes clear that “to live deliberately” is to conduct oneself with extreme purpose, control, and thoughtfulness. Is that what Thoreau intended to do when he went to the woods? It seemed probable, and yet I still got the sense that there was more to it than that, as though living deliberately involved something a bit more aggressive than just proceeding with care and caution.

I then focused on the words intentional and purposeful, specifically in relation to how most people in society live their lives. To live “with purpose” is to live with something driving you, something dictating your actions and the impetus behind those actions. And to “live intentionally” is to know ahead of time what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what you want out of the endeavor. In either case, what we have here is a life propelled by a predetermined set of values, objectives, and priorities. On the surface, it might seem like the majority of people do live this way. After all, what is more prevalent in the world than religion, and what is religion if not the embodiment of predetermined values, objectives, and priorities? Yet I couldn’t help remembering that the ideals of religion and the actual application of those ideals by the religious are usually miles apart. Most people will concur with a religious creed in theory while doing little or nothing to exemplify that creed in daily life. It also occurred to me that there are indeed “driven people” in this world, people whose ambitions for wealth and power influence their every behavior as they climb the various ladders needed in order to eventually sit in the fat chair. One could say that such people live intentionally and with purpose, that they live deliberately, but I’m not so sure that I’d agree. I think they are chasing their goals with purpose and running a race deliberately, but whether or not they are actually living life is a debatable point. It appears to me that all they’re really doing is hurling themselves toward death.

No, I’m not convinced that most people do live deliberately. There’s a certain necessary aggressive insistence for joy and profound experiences that I think should characterize the way we spend our days, and this, it seems to me, is lacking in most human beings. I don’t say that as a judgment of others; I say it as a confession, for as I thought about these things that night on my porch, I knew that I too, in my own way, was guilty of the same. But now that I was adopting the lifestyle of a hermit, now that I was retreating from society, I decided that not only was I done with the world, I was also done living accidentally. It was time for me to begin living deliberately, with intention and with purpose…

The next questions were therefore quite clear:

What was my intention?

What was my purpose?

The answers were just as clear, and again, Thoreau provided them: to “front only the essential facts of lifeand to “drive life into a corner.”

But what did that look like? I realized just then that I didn’t entirely know.

I finished my pipe bowl and went back inside. Later that night, I lit a fire in the fireplace and, once the flames were alight with the soothing, crackling sound that only good wood can produce, I stretched out on the living room floor with my journal. Just what, I wondered, were the “essential facts of life,” and what did it mean to “front” them? And what did it mean to “drive life into a corner?”

With a sense of embarkation, I opened my journal, turned to a blank page, and wrote:

The Essential Facts of Life

My intention was to list them all out so I could repeatedly reference them in the weeks and months to come. But what were they? It occurred to me that different people may answer that question in different ways. In other words, perhaps each individual has his own take on what constitute the “essential facts of life.” So I jotted the word “my” between the words “of” and “Life,” so that the heading now read:

The Essential Facts of My Life

Now the question was easier to answer, so I began making my list.

RelationshipsThat’s the first word I wrote, but I immediately felt half-tempted to cross it out. Being a self-confessed dissident who philanders with the lighter shades of misanthropy, and as one who was at that moment orchestrating a retreat from society, it felt oxymoronic to consider relationships an “essential fact of life.” But I kept it because, in the end, even though I’m not the biggest fan of other people, there are relationships in my life that I consider important, relationships that, were I to lose them, would cause me substantial heartache. My lovely wife, for example, and the few friends I had (I have never been one who has scores of acquaintances masquerading as my friends, people I see regularly but who likely know as little about me as I know about them—that’s not my way; I prefer to keep a small circle of close friends, people who know me as intimately as I know them). And my family, such as it is. These relationships are indeed essential to my life.

The next thing I wrote was reflection. While others might see that as an interesting sideline of life, they may not see it as essential. Well, reflection is very essential to me. Sans ample time and space to reflect on life, my choices, my thoughts and feelings, and my interactions with others, I cannot function. Meditation and contemplation have always been the basis upon which I’ve built my style of existence.

Next, I wrote expression. Indeed, unlike so many people in this world who feel the need to disguise their thoughts and feelings and inclinations, I’ve always been one who absolutely requires self-expression. It is not my way to keep quiet. Whatever’s going on inside me, whether it’s creative or some heavy piece of philosophical insight that I’ve been wrestling with, or some dark, dysfunctional bit of baggage, I simply must have means by which I can express it. I can’t function without such an outlet, and this is one of the reasons I became a writer.

I finished the list by writing the words recovery (since it’s always been my deep desire to pursue healing inasmuch as is possible for me), evolution (by which I meant personal development and mental/emotional growth), illumination (I must have a dependable and regular means by which to increase my personal knowledge—on all subjects), and welfare (by which I meant safety and emotional security, since, as a victim of appalling childhood abuse, the lasting effect of which was always with me, feeling a sense of safety in life—as imagined as such a feeling might be—was nothing if not essential to me).

There were likely more ideas that could have been jotted down, but I didn’t want to overwhelm myself right from the start, so I stopped there and then sat back to survey the list:


Feeling as though I’d made a good start, my next task was to ascertain what it would look like to “front” these things. I understood the usage of the verb to front in this case. It meant to face something head on, and deal directly with it. In other words, my withdrawal from society would have to be, among other things, a determined effort to comprehend those characteristics that make me me, fully digest everything they implied concerning the living of life, and make them my driving force. Facing these essential facts of life meant accepting the weight of their repercussions and letting them dictate my destiny.

I packed yet another pipe bowl and sat in front of the fire, smoking and thinking deeply about these things, wondering how to put all these disconnected bits of wisdom together into something productive.

Then I suddenly recalled the words of Søren Kierkegaard:

The most common form of despair is not being who you are.

I’d seen that statement on a bookmark once, and I never forgot it. I think these words are true, and I think that in some obscure way this is what Thoreau was hinting at, too. When he went to reside in the woods that surround Walden Pond, was Thoreau attempting to find God? No, Walden doesn’t seem to suggest this. Was he hoping to discover Nature? I don’t think so. No, I think he went into the woods because he knew that being surrounded by Nature would assist him in his ultimate goal, which, I think, was to find himself. Yes, I think Thoreau went into the woods to discover the man he wanted to be, and “fronting the essential facts of life” was his way of doing that. And now that I had my own list of the essential facts of (my) life, that’s what I intended to do as well.

But what did it mean to “drive life into a corner?” As I have said, I absolutely love this phrase. In fact, this phrase alone is enough to justify a lasting adoration of Henry David Thoreau. What an incredible albeit succinct construction of words that convey such a massive philosophical weight. But, again, what does it mean? To me, the two key words in the expression are drive and corner. To “drive something” is to dictate the direction it will take, to force it to go where you command. To drive something means you are the one in control, and that which you are driving is at your mercy. It means that you can insist on any course and you’ll get what you want. And what exactly is a “corner?” I think in this instance it means there’s nowhere else to go. There is no escape. There is no alternative. There is no chance that what you’ve driven into the corner can disobey you. It means existence has been brought to a threshold, and there is no way forward except into the heart of aliveness.

Therefore, to drive life into a corner is to take control of your own destiny. It means that you are no longer living accidentally but rather deliberately. It means that you’ve insisted on certain things that absolutely must characterize your life and your experiences, and you will not be defied. It means you are not a victim of what befalls you; no, you are the one calling all the shots. And if bad shit does befall you—because bad shit will befall you sooner or later—your response won’t be one of weakness or defeat but rather a calm equipoise and a resolve to keep on going (since, indeed, it’s not how badly you fall that counts, it’s how you carry yourself as you stand back up). To drive life into a corner is to remove the peripheral bullshit that promises to fulfill but never does, those appealing diversions that vie for our attention and keep us from living deliberately. To drive life into a corner is to live with purpose, to live intentionally, to have a say in who you are and what you’ll become. It means that when you experience something, you experience it to the full. You are present. You’re in the moment, not off in some dream world or lost in the bowels of your latest distraction. It means you’re not a willing partaker in the downward spiral that is our chaotic world; instead, you’re going against the grain, doing things differently, with the end goal of “sucking all the marrow out of life.” It means you are finished with reactionary living; indeed, you’re now a person of action, not reaction. You’re now someone who has whittled reality down to only those things that truly matter, and in those things you are immersed—everything else has either fallen away or been deliberately driven away. You’re no longer blown about by the waves, those tumultuous exertions placed upon you by others, those expectations that you never signed up for and don’t understand anyway. You know who you are, and you like it. You live as you insist, and you don’t apologize for it. And finally, to drive life into a corner is to know the truth and to accept that truth as it is, to embrace reality, not flee from it or pretend it is otherwise.

To drive your life into a corner is to own yourself and your experiences.

That all sounds pretty fucking good, if you ask me. But it’s just a theory until you make it a reality. The only problem is… well… how the fuck do you do that, exactly? And where do you begin?

Taken from my book, Letters From a Dissident Philosopher.

[1] I could have just as easily decided on the term anchorite rather than hermit, since anchorite literally means “to withdraw from society.” But I got the impression that anchorites not only withdrew from society, they also withdrew to an isolated geographical location, and while the classic usage of the term hermit is similar, it no longer carries the same stigma.

[2] Translated into English: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, published in several sections between 1883 and 1891.

[3] A lover of words, their meaning, and their usage(s) in sentences. True nerd shit.

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