On Walden Pond: "To Live Deliberately"

I'm going to try something on this blog. It's inspired by Brad's Sunday Sabbath poetry where he posts poetry on Sundays.

What I'm going to do is post a quote each week, with some commentary, from Henry David Thoreau's Walden. I'd been wanting to do this for some time but was waiting to visit Walden Pond before starting. But one programming note: While I'll try to post from Walden each week I'm not going to hold myself to having it occur on a particular day. I don't know if I'm disciplined enough for that.

Why spend this much time with Walden? Well, outside of the Bible, Walden is one of the most influential texts in my life (along with Thoreau's essay "Life Without Principle"). And by influential I mean not just intellectually. Thoreau has shaped how I approach my life, practically speaking. I'd like to share how that looks.

More, although Thoreau was skeptical of the Christianity he saw around him in Concord I've found a lot of his insights to be complementary with and supportive of my Christian walk. So, given the purposes of this blog I'll be filtering Walden through my Christian commitments.

If you've not read Walden, or did so a long time ago, some background as we begin with this inaugural post.

Thoreau began his "experiment," as he called it, on July 4, 1845. He lived on Walden Pond, squatting on acreage acquired by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, for two years, two months, and two days.

While living on Walden Pond Thoreau wrote about half of what would become Walden. (He mainly spent his time at Walden Pond writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.) After Thoreau left the pond the original 117 pages written at the pond expanded, over various drafts, and was eventually published in 1854, nine years after Thoreau had left Walden Pond.

As most know, a part of what Thoreau did at Walden Pond was to build his own house and grow his own food (or sell for food). A part of his "experiment" was to live simply and independently. (Though some critics like to point out that Thoreau often dined with the Emerson's or had his sister or mother do his laundry from time to time. Still, a good part of his two years on Walden Pond was pretty frugal, simple and solitary.) Most of the details of this part of the experience is recounted, at times down to the penny, in the first, and longest, chapter of Walden entitled "Economy." You can see a replica of Thoreau's cabin next to the parking lot at the state park. The picture above of the replica was taken by Jana during our recent family visit. (The other pictures used for this post were also taken by Jana.)

Why did Thoreau go to Walden Pond? What was he looking for? What was his experiment all about?

One answer, Thoreau's own, comes from chapter two "Where I Lived and What I Lived For":

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
You could say these words changed my life. I don't think that is too much hyperbole.

The key notion here, one that still guides me, is captured in the word deliberately. That's what I admire so much about Walden. I'm less interested in Thoreau's answers in Walden than in the stated goal of the enterprise: deliberation. Thinking hard about life, about what is most dear, eternal, truthful, virtuous, or beautiful. Few of us slow down to ponder such questions. Consequently, we find at the moment of death that we had not lived. So I like to ask, over and over, as Thoreau asked later in chapter two, "Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?"

This makes me think of the familiar passage:
Philippians 4.8
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
When I was young I hated this passage. It was used against us to preach against illicit and dirty thoughts. Not that this passage doesn't speak to those issues. But in light of Walden I prefer to think of this text as speaking about living deliberately. What is pure? (A question I ponder a great deal in my book Unclean.) What is true beauty? What should I admire? What should I applaud? What should I compliment? During his time at Walden Pond Thoreau wondered about this sort of stuff. And I think I should follow his example.

I also think of this passage from the gospels:
Luke 14.27b-28a
[W]hoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?
Counting the cost. Being a disciple of Jesus means being, like Thoreau, deliberate. We need to think hard about following Jesus. Too many Christians, I fear, are simply mindless about their faith and what it entails. Do we really comprehend what our baptism signifies?

And so we've begun. Each week a thought from Walden Pond. With a bit of Christian theology thrown in.

May you live deliberately this coming week.

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12 thoughts on “On Walden Pond: "To Live Deliberately"”

  1. Deliberateness seems to me to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the Christian life.  There are just so many weltanschauungen out there that can inform our deliberations.  What I feel the lack of sometimes is a vocabulary of Christian deliberateness (cf the rich literature on mindfulness research which has perhaps begun to create a parallel vocabulary) - the only existing language has been appropriated by traditional theologies and rendered into odious cliche for many.  I am hoping your coming journey will help to expand my vocabulary in ways that will enable me to express faith authentically to others.  

  2. The word deliberate (in its various forms) is a fascinating word because of the range of uses it carries with it, all of which are included in your thoughts here.  It can mean intentionally ("you deliberately disobeyed me!"); it can mean slowly ("the turtle plodded deliberately across the road"); it can mean carefully ("the man picked his way deliberately through the mine field"); and it can mean with significant thought and debate ("The jury deliberated for days before reaching a decision"). 

    As I pondered this, I also wondered about the etymology.  Is the word really "de-liberate"; i.e., making something less free than it previously was?  If so, that would be a deliciously ironic twist on Thoreau.  Even though he was going into the woods to be free of conveniences and contraints, by being deliberate he was actually become less free, because he was subjecting himself to the thought process required to tear himself away and to make it all work.  Likewise, when we live as Christians we tearing ourselves away from what the world calls freedom (to do what we please), to subject ourselves to God's law (as expressed in Phil. 4, Luke 14, and elsewhere).  Just a thought.... 

  3. Thanks for "introducing" yet another angle to my prism of understanding. Your referencing Philippians 4:8 (and yes, for me it was a haunting passage against how I used thoughts!) as a map for living "deliberately" allowed me to tag the text to what I have defined in my walk as living "transcendently". I deliberately reflect on the transcendent issues of life by evaluating my theology in light of what is universal versus what is cultural. I love the process of asking if my concerns, feelings, actions, etc. are reflective of my culture compared to whether or not some unknown person living in a (pardon the cliche) "third-World culture" would be concerned about the same things. Being now "deliberately transcendent" expands my prayers as well as the tangible expressions of my faith. While I am part of the Amercan tribe, as a follower of Jesus I am becoming more identified with the transcendent culture (read: Kingdom) of the God who is interested and engaged with all of humanity. And deliberately so. 

  4. Great post Andrew.
    My own experience is frustration that people are so happy with the cliches.

  5. I like this very much in regards to John 8:31-36. In Christ is the true freedom of God but it is paradoxical as it appears to be otherwise. We fetter ourselves to God through Christ - following him, believing in him, making him Lord - and yet this 'yoke' is easy; the captives are set free. It is both liberation and 'de-liberation'.

  6. Whenever I've read that Thoreau quote before (essentially his thesis for Walden), I examine my life in a larger context. However, you have unwittingly provided me with inspiration and cause for reflection as I'm on the eve of another school year (the superfluity of a week-long in-service ensues tomorrow). I'm sitting here pondering what "carrying my cross" and "living deliberately" would look like in my interaction with students, colleagues, and parents, my lesson preparation, even my handling of (or not handling of) the daily minutia I'm to attend to. 

  7. Thanks! I pointed your comment out to her.

    BTW, the third picture, the one of the forest trees, is the view from the front door of Thoreau's cabin. This was the view he had exiting the cabin every morning. The pond is glimpsed through the trees.

  8. What a wonderful idea for a series!

    A small question. Was Thoreau a misanthrope, and if so, is it wrong to enjoy that strain of his writing?

  9. That's an interesting question. I can see where one could see a strain of misanthropy in his thought. I'd never read it like that. I've always seen him as offering a prophetic critique of society on the cusp of the industrial revolution. His stated goal was to "wake my neighbors up."

  10. Yea, a response can be framed in many ways, which is part of what makes it interesting. I decided to look for a quote to help me frame a view.

    "Confucius said, 'To contract ties of Friendship with any one, is to contract Friendship with his virtue. There ought not to be any other motive in Friendship.' But men wish us to contract Friendship with their vice also." (On the Concord and Merrimack)

    I think that for most of us being liked unconditionally for who we are is a key element of what we consider to be friendship. Clearly Thoreau held "Friendship" to a higher standard than that, by which most of us would not be or feel liked in his presence. It's a split not unlike the the justice/love dichotomy that is at the core of the debate about universal salvation. And related to purity.

    It is clear that Thoreau would be appalled by popular culture, in which case he would not like the majority of persons for who they are.  

  11. Yes, I see that. Thoreau wasn't likely to coddle people or put up with a lot of neurotic nonsense in relationships. I doubt he had a very welcoming air about him. But I don't know if that make him a misanthrope.

    A lot of prophetic types have an austere, demanding edge to them that inhibits easy relationships. I also know a lot of people who hold themselves in reserve and demand a lot from others before letting them in to the sanctum sanctorum of their lives. These people have fewer but very deep friendships. Thoreau was like that.

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