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I somehow managed to get all the way through college and into the working world before I ever read "Walden," by Henry David Thoreau. Finding Thoreau at that late date was a bit unfortunate. "Walden" caused me to completely reevaluate my life, and had that happened sooner I would have made better use of those years frittered away studying to be an accountant.
Many people think "Walden" is primarily an "evironmental" book. They are wrong. It is book about one man's attempt to find the principles by which to live a proper life. In the chapter titled "Where I Lived, and What I lived For" you will find Thoreau's own, often quoted explanation. "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." He wanted to live his life rather than find out too late that it had, in fact, lived him. Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond confirmed his belief that a deliberately lived life is possible, and that is what the book is about.
Rather than purposefully living, the vast majority of people's lives are little more than a series of reactions to events and forces outside themselves. That's not truly living. That's just survival. Yet most people willingly engage in simple survival today in the belief that they will get their chance at actual living tomorrow. If they can earn enough money now surely they will be able to retire one day and enjoy life.
Those are long odds, however. Assuming you live long enough to try it, will you know how to enjoy life? Or be in good health? It was a common approach in Thoreau's day too, and he addresses it in the chapter titled "Economy." "This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once."
This individualism and self-reliance is a constant theme in all of Thoreau's writing, from "On Civil Disobedience" to "Life Without Principle." Through reading him I was introduced to his contemporary and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's essays are a wealth of thought on similar themes. In his essay "Spiritual Laws," for example, he has this to say about working: "The common experience is that man fits himself as well as he can to the customary details of that work or trade he falls into, and tends it as a dog turns a spit. Then is he part of the machine he moves; the man is lost. Until he can manage to communicate himself to others in his full stature and proportion, he does not yet find his vocation."
We get very little help in finding our vocation. Our culture places the most stress on the monetary aspect of getting a living. To that end, our education system increasingly intends only to turn out workers with this or that set of specialized, salable skills. We then agree to spend the bulk of our lives trading these skills for money. If our greatest reward is the money, skilled as we may be we are still just spit-turning dogs. And that's the polite metaphor.
Thoreau and Emerson saved me from spending a large chunk of my life as an accountant. "Walden" had the approximate effect of a 2x4 thwacking me between the eyes. I stopped what I was doing, spent some time figuring out what I really wanted to do, and then set out deliberately down that path. These two Transcendentalists continue to inspire me on my way. If you haven't read them, or read them only long ago, I highly recommend a dose. Most of their writings are fairly short. Thoreau's "Life Without Principle" is less than 25 pages but it packs a punch.
Living deliberately won't necessarily make you rich in the traditional sense because it aims at a more valuable reward. As Emerson said in his eulogy to Thoreau: "He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself."