A few weeks ago I stumbled on this New York Times article on Henry David Thoreau. Written by Holland Cotter, the piece touches on the solitude he lived in, which provides lessons for the world we find ourselves in today. This began a deep rabbit hole of research into Thoreau; one that I’m still trying to climb out of.
Born in 1817, Thoreau was an American essayist, poet, and philosopher. He’s best known for his book Walden, based on his experience living in a 10 x 15-foot cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He lived in semi-seclusion for two years exploring nature, writing, and contemplating economics, philosophy, and society. Thoreau used this time to learn more about himself and the world around him, and later influenced the thinking of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The point of this post is to highlight some of my favourite excerpts from his books and writings and try to capture what he’d have to say about our strange world today.
Solitude and Connection
“I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” – Walden.
How can solitude be “a friend” as it was for Thoreau? Are we not social creatures who require connection and enjoy spending time with other humans? Even prior to COVID, society has seen an increase in the number of people that are lonely. Some have even classified it as an epidemic. Our quarantine lifestyle only exacerbates this loneliness.
Despite this, I have found myself enjoying this time to myself. I’ve made time to go for walks in the woods. Rather than pregaming to go out on a Friday or Saturday evening, I find myself sitting at my dining table thinking and writing. Friends have shared that without social distancing, they would have never realized they’re not as extroverted as they thought they were. That’s powerful, their identities are changing.
I’m curious if this personal change will stick once we’re back to normal. When we have the ability to reconnect the way we did before COVID, will we seek the same social connections we once did? Or will we be more conscious of who we were spending time with, or maybe just want to spend some time on our own? I’m a bit of a people-pleaser myself and always want to say yes to friends who want to spend time with me. Given this solitude I’ve experienced in the past few months, I won’t want to go back to that same state. I’ll be more at peace with saying no and spending time on my own. I mean, if I can’t be friends with myself, how can I be a friend for someone else?
“I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constrained, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this.” – Journal 3.
Ah, this one stuck with me. I reread it multiple times, and each time it sunk in a bit more – kinda like the feeling when you first get in your bed, and it takes a few seconds for your body to settle in before you can rest.
Thoreau touches on capital N Nature as being free, without constraint, and anything created by Man is the opposite. This reminded me of the differences between feminine and masculine energies, and how men, in particular, can do a better job at nurturing those qualities that Thoreau personifies as being ‘feminine’- open, free, without constraint.
Many men find it difficult to share their emotions, to let go, and to let people in. Our society is improving, but still, in the majority of the world, men are not encouraged to be vulnerable. We see incorrect role models in our fathers; a figure without emotion who withstands any difficult experience without shedding a tear. A father who isn’t able to say “I love you”, and open up about his insecurities; even though you know he has plenty.
In what seems like a distant life in San Francisco, I have three roommates. Their names are Will, Thenuka, and Patrick. We have wonderful discussions about a variety of things. From technology to philosophy and even sprinkle in dating advice along the way. We’ve created a house that is fully transparent with one another and where each of us feels comfortable being vulnerable and opening up, without constraint. For men in their 20’s this is very powerful and something I encourage all men in my life to find. Find other guys that can help you open up and be more vulnerable. The speed with which you’ll discover more about yourself, work through difficult emotional baggage from childhood, and hear what others are going through, may leave you in a better mental place than men who are in their 50’s and 60’s. This will not only help yourself, but you’ll also show up as a more compassionate son, brother, friend, and partner. This is how you’ll become “more of a man” and generally a better a human.
“With a hundred modern improvements; there is an illusion about them. There is not always a positive advance. We are great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
This quote got me thinking, hmm, what was happening in Texas in 1846? That year, getting communication to Texas may have been quite important. A year prior, Texas had become the United States’ 28th state after it was annexed from Mexico. Mexico didn’t appreciate that, and in 1846 declared war against the US, starting the aptly named Mexican – American War. Therefore, the new telegraph that reached Texas would have been important for the US to communicate to troops on the frontline. The war was the first that was covered by mass media, which was partially due to the ability to spread information at a quicker pace. Here’s an excerpt from a newspaper of the time:
“What has miserable, inefficient Mexico–with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many–what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!” – Source.
In the case of creating the ‘magnetic telegraph’ from Maine to Texas, you would think that there was something important to communicate and that Thoreau may have been speaking out of line. Yet, there were some winners and some losers. The US won given the speed and breadth of communication across the country, but Mexico lost. Not only the war, but they carried with them a negative impression that the US had for Mexico and their people – which still appears to be in place today.
Thoreau’s perspective on the obsessive need for technological progress still rings true today. Business people and politicians are still looking to make modern improvements with the hope to create better communication channels and connect each other.
In April 2020, China and the US are racing to create 5G networks that will span the world. 5G, short for fifth-generation wireless, promises to be the heartbeat of the future. Expected to be 100 times faster than today’s 4G networks, 5G’s seamless connections could enable innovations such as driverless cars, robot-run factories and remote surgery.
“The first country to deploy 5G will own the economy of the future, establish itself as the worldwide leader in technology and innovation, and have an upper hand in terms of national security. It is crucial that America — not one of our greatest adversaries, such as China — continue to lead the world.” The Hill.
We are quick to create new technologies, but we have the responsibility to first take a step back and ask why we’re building them. We can ask ourselves what negative consequences this could create for our users or broader society. Put in guiding principles of trust along with enabling clear and thoughtful communication. Encouraging our platforms to take a stance on issues that can help the world. Being in an organization that is building products for half a billion people, I can tell you that people are having these conversations. It appears that we’re making a shift in how we think about products, but the work on this can’t slow down.
Maybe we should check-in and see if we’re aligning with Thoreau when it comes to the creation of new technologies, especially those that connect people through online communication. Are we making a positive advance? Are we creating our technology so that the people who use it have something important to communicate? I think we’re getting there, but still have some ways to go.
Like many philosophers from long ago, not everything they’ve written about will be 100% applicable today. That being said, I do resonate with the man who spent his years in a cabin in the woods, and think his lessons can continue to educate us on how to live our world today.
This was originally shared in my newsletter that I send out bi-weekly on what I’m learning and writing about in the topics of mindfulness, relationships, and technology.
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