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Every day we see and read news of this season’s graduation activities. We see pictures of students in their commencement regalia, and we read excerpts from addresses given by prominent citizens for graduates on their milestone day.
Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century writer, philosopher and naturalist, left us the gift of “Walden,” an account of what he learned about life, himself and the meaning of his observations about humanity and the natural world.
This year’s graduates might be amused at some of the ideas of an old-fashioned philosopher; on the other hand, they might find wisdom and meaning that they can weave into their young lives.
Thoreau spent a little over two years in the woods near Walden Pond from 1845 until 1847 near Concord, Massachusetts, lived alone in a hut he had built himself, grew his own food and went on occasional trips into town for short interludes with society. Ralph Waldo Emerson and his family helped him along the way and supported this unique experiment.
Graduates and family members, ponder the following ideas from “Walden” during this season of commencement.
“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote, “to front only the essential facts of life...and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” How sad: to grow near the end of life and realize that you have not really lived.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Some people cannot find a way to improve their unfulfilled lives.
“It is never too late to give up our prejudices.” Before we can give up our prejudices, we have to figure out what they are.
Thoreau quotes this idea from Confucius “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” Thoreau would probably agree that the more we know, the more we realize how little we actually know.
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensible, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” Do we own too much stuff?
“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes...If you have any enterprises before you, try it in your old clothes.” Maybe clothes do not make the man, or woman, after all.
“...for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” Ummm!
“Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.”
“Our lives are frittered away by detail.” Twenty-first century lives might be more guilty of this idea than those of the 19th.
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, not a hundred or a thousand.” Most of us these days have too much on our plate.
When the railroad was being built and spoiling the landscape in Thoreau’s view, he wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Would he think that the internet rides upon us in a similar way in the 21st century?
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and fit inheritance of generations of nations.”
“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” He must not have needed more than three.
“It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them.” There is something to be said for picking your own produce.
“However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.” Make wise choices so that you can say that you love your life.
“Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.” Hear, hear!
“Only the day dawns to which we are awake.”
And finally, “I learned at least, by my experiment, that if one advances into the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success in common hours.”
So, share these thoughts from Thoreau’s book with graduates you know, or, better still, give copies of “Walden” to them to enrich their library.
Henry David Thoreau, “Walden,” graduates, personal libraries, lofty thoughts and personal dreams all melt into each other.
Someone, somewhere will surely quote Thoreau in a commencement speech this month or next.
Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life. Email her at email@example.com.