Walden Lost: COVID-19
Updated: May 2
Philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived on the shore of Walden Pond in Massachusetts
We want to breathe.
All of us in Portugal, Europe, the United States, Central and South America, Asia and the rest of the world want to breathe.
Or, shall I say, we all want to let go of this breath that waits for good news.
This new coronavirus, Covid-19, has us in lockdown, sitting on our chests and spreading to others relentlessly. It is living well and free.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”
Henry David Thoreau’s solution to holding our breath was to simplify our lives. He wrote most of Walden, or Life in the Woods, during his two years and two months of living alone in a house he built one mile away from any neighbor. He spent more time rewriting his memoir than he had devoted to his experiment of forsaking civilization, publishing in 1854.
“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, Simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”
As we spend our time in self-isolation in our homes, we are adhering to Thoreau’s wisdom. Yet, are we reaping the benefits?
Thoreau, son of a pencil maker, was born, bred and resided most of his life in Concord, Massachusetts. His friends and associates were philosophers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, writers, and farmers, whose ingenuity and simplicity Thoreau admired, and discriminated Irish, who came to build Fitchburg Railroad.
In the year 1844, Emerson bought land on which Thoreau would retreat the following year. He also addressed a celebration in Concord of the 11th anniversary of the emancipation of 800,000 slaves in the British West Indies, which “was stained with no blood . . . but accomplished by the wonder-working power of truth and even-handed justice”, according to the anti-slavery newspaper the Liberator. After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required the return of runaway slaves to their owners, Thoreau became part of the Underground Railroad. His mother hid slaves in her house, and Thoreau escorted them to the West Fitchburg railroad station, where they made connections to a free Canada.
“As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.”
In these extraordinary times, we must live committed: to humankind, to our neighbor, friend and foe. We stay at home to stop the spread of Covid-19 that can kill, the virus that has killed 37,272 souls to date.
Like Emerson, Thoreau espoused transcendentalism, a philosophy developed in the 1820s and 1830s in the eastern United States. Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions corrupt the individual, and that people are at their best when self-reliant and independent.
How can we be self-reliant when a disease invades our territories and attacks us? We rely on others to help rid ourselves of it.
How can we live individualistically?
Covid-19 is transmitted in communities. To fight it, we must sacrifice personal freedom for the greater good, or the health of the community.
At times of crisis, adherence to a government is mandated, otherwise the disease would run amok, which is what happened when various governments dragged their feet in protecting their jurisdictions.
State of emergencies and lockdowns, fines and imprisonment are the order of the day. Yet, these, too, must pass. They must be temporary and relinquished when the virus is vanquished. We must be vigilant of their abolition. Power is seductive and not given up easily.
“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could 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; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
We are self-isolating but not of our own choice, which makes all the difference. We are simplifying our lives at the behest of government, government whose intervention Thoreau wished to lessen in his life.
I am eager for the return of individual freedom. However, for right now, I dread learning the daily death tolls and yearn for their end.
I want to breathe out.