Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thoreau-ly Convinced

I ran across a quote I hadn't read in some time- "The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer." I have to agree with this statement, which stands as true today as it did in the 1860's, when written by the author Henry David Thoreau, (pronounced "thorough" for those who are unacquainted with the New England manner of correctly speaking French names).

Mr. T wasn't exactly the world's sweetest guy. There are great tales from Emerson, (Ralph Waldo, not "Lake and Palmer"), who called Henry just about every nasty name he could muster and some he hadn't even thought existed. Melville, Stevenson, and Hawthorne each thought of him as a well-spoken, albeit oft spoken curmudgeon whose love for his fellow man was greatly overshadowed for his love of solitude. My guess is that had he lived in this day, he would certainly never have a cell phone, would disdain the idea of "myspace" and "facebook", and probably would blog incessantly between his strolls through gardens and deserts, if not Manhattan proper.

I'm convinced I'm much like HDT in myriad ways. He never did speak a word without first thinking of its purpose. For him, the spoken thoughts were reflections of the mind, and using words carefully meant being responsible for their outcome. In this point we're united. I'm generally and willfully disgusted by those whose idle banter and chatter seem to carry on long after a point was placed squarely. It is unlikely you'll find me in small talk on a telephone, for any reason. If I don't have the punchline I won't ramble on searching until it appears on the verbal horizon. Succinct or nothing is my preference. Perhaps this is why some people think I'm not involved in a conversation, when the fact is, I'm more involved in listening.

When I was a teenaged girl, searching for meaning and purpose as one does at that age, I was introduced by a burly teacher to the intricacies of the words in Walden. I visited the Lyceum fairly often in Concord, Massachusetts, which sits in the spot near Henry's original wooden box of a home. The building stood barely giving the appearance of a residence, more resembling a large shed. I marveled at the simplicity of his life, and took many walks around the pond which shared the name of his greatest known essay. I pictured him grunting at the sales clerk in town as he got his weekly supplies, as his idea of greetings consisted of a nod, if any acknowledgment at all. He didn't speak with those whom he did not have reason to speak.

And yet, he was certainly full of thoughts, conversations, and deep insights. His essays carry readers into the concept of the Enlightenment Age, his salon chats with his peers, and the intimacy of the life of a hermit. The quotes he is well known for sit in a Wiki entry, but the greatest quotes are those that the readers discover when they find themselves mirrored in his thoughts. Ever timeless, he transcends far more than the written word, tapping into the human experience in nearly every paragraph.

I end this note with the concept of self-reliance. As he wrote a number of times, the efforts of man support mankind when man himself is solely responsible for his actions, words, deeds, and intent. He cannot demand others to supply him with worth, as it is his own to hold. Esteem, held humble, yet firm, is a stronger weapon against a venomous self-denial and negative introspection. As he walked alone, he didn't dwell on the life he left unlived, or the dreams he left unfulfilled; instead he carried the notion that his life was worth every moment, and worth every minute he spent spying the smallest of insects, or grandest of trees. The words of others, who certainly were not as keenly aware of their surroundings, didn't penetrate his shield of self worth, and self reliance. As townsfolk often bantered back about the strange man who lived in the shack- they still wondered how his great mind worked to create such wonderment. It was the idea that their thoughts weren't as important as the ones he held, and his own belief system which he lived truly to the last which caused him to be a greater man. He stood on solid mind as well as solid ground.

The lessons of the past must be apparent in the present for them to have any importance at all. Thoreau was a rabbi in the truest sense in that he taught millions to believe as he did, that the world is better when appreciated, and people are greater when understood. The quote at the beginning of this passage is certainly a statement to the idea that everyone and everything has a reason to be noted, and heard.  Those who ask questions to give their own answers are missing the reason to care for a fellow man. If he wants to hear his own thunder, he should  stay alone. If he wants to hear others, then listen intentionally. It will create a better respect. And, the one heard will be forever grateful for the chance.




The Portable Thoreau (Penguin Classics)
by Henry David Thoreau

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