"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done."
The other day I decided to begin reading Thoreau's Walden. Being abundantly aware of Walden's critical acclaim in the world of literature, I was nevertheless surprised that I'm actually enjoying its pages. After only a few days, I've come across several passages that would make great topics for journal entries, hence the entry you're reading now. I am struck by the beautiful quality of Thoreau's writing and instantly realized why it is considered a classic. Just by reading the first two chapters I can say that he's a master of the written word that one doesn't come across very often. I found myself quite envious of his talent, for although I like to think of myself as a good writer, I am lacking in the natural talent that Thoreau obviously possesses. "The Economist," the first chapter, is kind of hard to digest so I skipped ahead to the next chapter, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," where the passage above was found.
"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep."
The first sentence is magnificent and I knew that this was a passage I had to write about. "We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake..." Here, Thoreau is speaking of "effective intellectual exertion," which in the previous paragraph he says is lacking in all but one in a million people. He goes on to say in the same paragraph that only one in one hundred million is awake to a "poetic or divine life." As Walden is often cited for its insight and attention to detail, this provides a wonderful example of that. I couldn't agree with Thoreau more. Millions of people are indeed awake enough for physical labor and the monotonous task of existing. Few people are perceptive to the true nature of their existence and when one is, it is hard to ignore by that person and outsiders alike. This true nature may or may not be different for everyone but as Thoreau implies, its realization is indeed rare. Effective intellectual exertion can mean a variety of states of existence. I interpret this as the ability and the means by which to produce meaningful thoughts about one's inner and outer world. Furthermore, one cannot exist without the other. In other words, one must be able to project effectively the intellect both inward and outward. This duality, I feel, is that basis of that effectiveness. Thoreau believes just one in one hundred thousand people is awake to a poetic or divine life. By this, I think he meant the rare geniuses that walk the earth: the John Lennons, Pablo Picassos, and Shakesperes of the world. Although I suspect he would be hesitant to agree with me, I would include Thoreau himself in this latter category. The mere fact that he is aware of two different "levels" of awareness speaks to his unbridled perceptiveness and amazing ability to translate this into the written word.
Thoreau insists we must "reawaken and keep ourselves awake...by an infinite expectation of the dawn..." Here, Thoreau is suggesting we need goals and objectives in our lives to make our existence meaningful. Indeed, without goals we have no purpose. These can be anything from living according to God's divine plan or carrying out one's days in the hopes of achieving great wealth. Thoreau seems to be suggesting we need to define our existence in terms of our art of living, or what we believe is the ideal way to live. The human ability for conscious endeavor that Thoreau is so fond of largely defines my art of living. I structure the way I live my life around future goals and the means by which I am to achieve these goals. If I decide I want to earn a master's degree in anthropology, I set my mind to active inquiry about anthropological issues. This includes reading, studying, and always being conscious of the dynamic nature of the field. I encourage myself along the way and remain disciplined, for if I fail to do so that master's degree will be unattainable. To a degree, personal goals also shape the aspect of my art of living that deals with those around me. I cannot realize my dreams by leaving a trail of bodies in my path. That is to say that I must respect outside opinions, welcome criticism, and otherwise treat everyone around me with the amount of respect they deserve. Nobody got anywhere in life by ignoring and disrespecting others. I believe that one cannot lead a meaningful existence by treating other poorly. While my motivations for being nice to people may sound selfish, the difference lies in the fact that I sincerely wish for those around me to be happy and enjoy life. I could easily just put a fictitious smile on my face only to be pleasant.
"It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do."
Again, Thoreau seems to know the rarity of living a truly meaningful existence. In this sentence, he is saying that we are the primary influences and shapers of our own existence and future. While we may carry out actions that please others and ourselves, we must strive to let those actions be in the context of a meaningful art of living. I also believe he is saying here that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, for if we control the way in which we see the world it is possible to see beauty in things that we otherwise wouldn't. I am reminded of the scene in the film American Beauty where Ricky is showing his girlfriend Jane a film he took of a plastic bag blowing around in the wind on a city street. While most people just see trash caught by the wind, Ricky sees beauty and tries to relate this to Jane. Initially, the viewer is skeptical but after Ricky's explanation, we can draw a number of interpretations from the film of the bag.
If we are to lead this meaningful existence that is so prevalent in both ancient and modern philosophy, then we must heed Thoreau's advice and view our world as we personally feel is best. While outsiders can influence the way we see the world, we alone ultimately have control over the filters that we choose to place between our mind and the outside world. If we see war as appropriate, then we have a filter in place which blocks out all the horrible images that we don't see on the evening news. Similarly, some of us consciously avoid that which makes us uncomfortable, such as poverty and third world living conditions.
Although this is only one passage in what I can already tell is a beautiful piece of literature, I suspect that it sums of Thoreau's Art of Living, at least during his time at Walden Pond. I still have the strong desire to pack up and do something like Thoreau did. I believe the only true path to a meaningful existence is through experience and contemplative awareness. It is too easy to go through live in a mind-numbing state of sedation brought on by such phenomena as popular culture and religion. As Thoreau suggests, it is more difficult and far more admirable to live in conscious awareness of one's existence, always cognizant of the fragility of that existence but the infinite potential of it as well.