More than two centuries since his birth, Henry David Thoreau's mark on American culture can still be felt, perhaps best embodied by his wish to live the deliberate life.

S1E7 The Deliberate Life

I recently took a small group of students hiking in the Sam Houston National Forest as an extension activity related to our study of Transcendentalism, a nineteenth-century American philosophical and literary movement that stresses the importance of direct experience with nature. You have likely heard of its two most well-known thinkers whose names happen to come in threes—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Though a Harvard graduate, Thoreau chose to walk away, at least temporarily, from the type of life one might imagine is in store for a college graduate, very similar to how many college students today find themselves struggling with what to do next. Famously, in the following years, he spent two weeks, two months, and two days living in the wilderness outside of Concord Massachusetts, in a wooded area called Walden.

Living in a 10-by-15-foot cabin he built himself, Thoreau took great care to chronicle his time. Afterwards, he published a book titled Walden or A Life in the Woods, now routinely studied by high school and college students across the country. One of the things the Transcendentalist movement was highly concerned with, and by extension Thoreau, was that of living authentically and not wasting what time we have, expressed through one of the most famous quotes from the book:

“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.”

It’s the “living deliberately” that I like to talk about with my students, something they seem to be just as concerned about as Thoreau was—as perhaps all people are between the ages of 15 and 25—because, as the quote says, who wants to get to the end of their life and discover that they had not truly lived? But this worry is hardly reserved for young adults. Everyone worries about living deliberately to some degree, though it seems between the ages of 25 and 50 we think less and less about it, occupied by the life-building and maintenance that accompanies this phase.  

But this is hardly my only engagement with the quote.

My first encounter with it goes back to the early 1980s when the Tulsa Zoo opened four new exhibit buildings, each representing a particular ecological zone. I was only 12 or so, but remember the hoopla—it was a big deal—big enough to entirely reorient the layout of the park, moving the entrance to what was once the back of the zoo to help direct foot traffic towards its new crown jewel.

  • S1E10 The Morning Drive
    Things worth noticing are around us all the time, even with something as mundane and repetitive as the morning drive to work.

The exhibits were spectacular—arctic, desert, forest, and water—and though each was equally exotic, it was the forest building that I liked best.

Just after walking through an aviary filled with dense trees, upon exiting the forest building through a set of double doors, just outside attached to the wall hung a small bronze plaque with the following quote:

“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’m sure 12-year-old me read it. I doubt 12-year-old me really got it, but 12-year-old me wasn’t the only version of me that made a visit to the zoo. As the years went on, I revisited the park many times because it was something to do in a town that didn’t seem to have a lot to do, though perhaps all teenagers view the towns they grow up in as a place where there isn’t much to do.

Each time I visited the zoo and read the plaque, something about it resonated with me, and as the quest for authenticity that many teenagers strive for—while, ironically simultaneously trying to fit in with the crowd—grew stronger, the phrase “wished to live deliberately” stuck with me.

Like many angsty teenagers, I saw much of the world as a prefab nightmare filled with “yes men” and corporate lapdogs, people living out their “fake” lives. My friends and I referred to such people as “plastic”—just doing what they were told, doing whatever society dictated for them, sleepwalking through it all. I was disgusted by the sycophantic behavior, and then Dead Poets Society came out in 1989.

The film is about a bunch of teenage boys who awake to the wonder of existence through the medium of poetry and their inspirational teacher, Mr. Keating, casting aside the parental and societal expectations of the day, giving their plastic peers and mentors the metaphorical finger, and fully embracing passion, romanticism, and love—everything they believed was necessary for a meaningful existence.

In an important scene, the boys sneak out from their dormitories under the cover of darkness, crossing the quad in the midnight fog and hiding out in a cave to read poetry. To begin the meeting of the Dead Poets Society, they open a book that has been passed down through the generations, as if to invoke a spell. Inside those first few pages, they find instructions on how to open the meeting. The recitation of a quote, which is as follows:

“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.”

It took a couple of days, the quote lingering in my head, nudging me to try and connect it with a memory, and finally it clicked, the bronze plaque outside the forest building. I made a sojourn, not long after I saw the movie, to the zoo. I didn’t know what it meant when I was 12, but I knew it was important. As a 17-year-old, I now knew what was on the line. My authenticity. My very soul.

And thanks to the film, I had another quote to associate with the name Thoreau.

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice, because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”

I was inspired, and why not? I was 17 and told to beware of the life that involves quiet desperation. I wrote my junior English teacher a letter telling her that I disagreed with her interpretation of a poem we had read in class, and wanted to offer my own. I was filled with an intense desire to not live by anyone’s standards, much less that of a faceless conglomerate called society.

I bought a copy of Walden, the book I soon discovered the two monumental quotes came from, and wanted to live in the woods as my grandparents on my mother’s side did, albeit not in a 15-by-10 cabin—but out in the oaks, pecan, cattails, and ponds. To not be directed towards college, suburban life, a 9-to-5, everything that seemed to crush the souls of my father and mother.

And then I graduated from high school, did a semester of junior college, dropped out, worked for a landscaping company for $5.00 an hour, found a cute girl, got married, had a child, then another, went back to college, and lived a life that I considered as a 17-year-old to be one of quiet desperation, though the smallest spark of authenticity still existed in some deep chamber within. I did find my way out. Thank God I did, not that it was something I did on my own, and not that the quiet desperation had anything to do with my children—they were and are the light of my life. And now in a forest more than an hour outside the 4th largest city in the United States, I’ve returned to the woods, this time with students. It’s awfully idealistic to think a 3.5-hour walk will awaken something inside of a teenager that years of society has so effectively suppressed, but perhaps a spark is all it takes. Perhaps that’s all it takes for any of us.

Curiosity Manifold

A podcast where we attempt to notice easily overlooked aspects of human experience.

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