Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Value of Simplicity: Revisiting Thoreau's Walden

Every so often, I love to pick up books I haven't looked at in a while and lose myself in the words of a sagacious writer.  Lately, I've been revisiting the writings of Henry David Thoreau, whose books I never cease to recommend.

Most of us have heard of Henry David Thoreau, but we don't quite know what to think about him in the 21st-century Digital Age, which is dominated by complex technologies that invade nearly every aspect of our lives.   Smartphones inundate us with text messages, social media notifications, and calls throughout the day.  And with more consumers buying new devices such as commercial drones and fitness trackers, personal privacy may soon become a vestige of the past.  Were he alive today, Thoreau would have nothing to do with any of these.

(Image from Wikimeda Commons)

Here was a writer who professed simplicity almost two centuries ago (he lived from 1817 to 1862).  He was a contrarian for his time, a period of history known as the Industrial Age, which was distinguished by the rise of giant factories, growing urban areas, and powerful machines such as steam engines.  In fact, Thoreau went so far as to withdraw from city life and live by himself in the woods.  He brought with him only the bare necessities of life, and he wrote about this adventure in his book Walden.  Why the name "Walden"?  I'll let Thoreau explain.

My own copy of Walden

"Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber" (37).

Why make such a drastic move?  Again, I'll let the man himself explain.

"I went into 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.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear" (82).

Why on earth would Thoreauor any of us for that matternot be living deliberate, authentic lives?  One reason may have something to do with the rise of complex technology.  We created modern machines to make our lives better, but they have done the opposite, according to Thoreau, who professes,

"men have become the tools of their tools" (34).

In other words, we are not the ones controlling technology.  Technology is controlling us.

Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but let me try to update Thoreau's message.

By using modern technologies to make our social lives easier or more efficient, we often make our personal lives more complicated.  Every few minutes, our digital devices distract us with messages (at least half of Americans check their smartphones several times an hour or more, according to Gallup), and information overload from the Internet is confusing lots of people (many now have trouble distinguishing journalism from fake news).

When technology hits us with that much complexity all at once, it may be healthy to simplify our lives and curtail mental distractions.  I'll give a personal example.  One way I choose to simplify my life is not to pay for a data plan on my cellphone.  I only use it to make calls or send texts.  As a result, my phone distracts me very little, and I'm able to focus on the people in front of me.  Plus, the low phone bill is nice.

Okay, cutting the data plan from my phone isn't as drastic as Thoreau retreating to the woods, but it's my approach to a more deliberate life of experiencing the people and places around me without distractions.  Try this simple test next time you're out with a friend at a cafe, restaurant, bar, beach, park, or wherever: see if you can enjoy your friend's company without disrupting the conversation by checking your smartphone.  After all, would you rather squander your free time by compulsively checking your smartphone every other minute?  Or would you rather enjoy the moment with others you care about?  To wit, does technology control you, or are you in control of your own life ("to live deliberately," as Thoreau said)?

Walden's message of simplicity and deliberate living isn't about condemning technology.  It is, however, a rejection of technological consumerism.  On a practical level, simplicity means minimizing material distractions so that we can maximize the enjoyment of life around us.

Walden Pond (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

References: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden.  New York: Doric Books, 1950.