After setting out his famous summation of the modern condition--"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"--Thoreau goes on in Chapter One of Walden to describe a bit about why he thinks this situation has come to pass.
His first target is a thoughtlessness that resigns itself to the status quo. The attitude seems to be "Well, this is what everyone says is the 'good life' so that is what I'll do." More, this sentiment is less a conscious thought than it is unconsciously and unreflectively assumed. We just follow others. Doing what they do. Pursuing what they pursue. Wanting what they want. Admiring what they admire. Applauding what they applaud. Blessing what they bless. Cursing what they curse.
All without thinking.
Thus we are back to the great theme of Walden--living life deliberately. And a part of this deliberation is to step back and question the patterns of life that have captured us. Mainly because people just blindly follow everyone around them. This leads me to the next quote I'd like to highlight from Walden:
The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?Here we engage with one of the other great themes of Walden: Nonconformity. The willingness to question, object, protest, and resist.
The connections here with the Christian faith are almost too obvious to mention. One famous passage will perhaps make the point explicit:
"Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world."A confession: I'm a bit of a nonconformist. I try to dress differently. Think differently. Behave differently. I'm a little bit off. Not much mind you, but I'm not drawing precisely inside the lines. I try to blur the boundaries of every "pattern" I find myself in.
This often gets me into trouble. I go too far at times. I've offended people.
You can blame Thoreau. As I've said, this book has affected the way I live. I spend a lot of time repenting of my good behavior.
I could say a lot more about all this, how it all plays out in my life, but I've already gone too far in the direction of vanity in this post. If you are going to be a rebel don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. But I do want to say this.
If nonconformity is an important part of being a Christian--"Do not be conformed!"--then this is a skill that needs constant care and cultivation. And the main thing that needs to be cultivated is this: Indifference to the crowd. The main reason we conform is because we live in fear. Mostly fear of social censor or disapprobation. Fear of the sidelong glance, condescending smirk, and the whispering of the clique. We need to inoculate ourselves against these fears so that when the real tests come we have reserves of courage than can be drawn upon. We've got to get used to saying "No," used to going a different way, used to looking weird. You can't conform everyday of your life and then expect, when the heat comes, to do anything different. You have to inoculate yourself.
When the sun sets on our lives let us not lament: "What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?"