Many people remember the book Walden as the story of a hermit living in a hut who survived on twigs and berries in the Concord, Massachusetts woods. Its author, Henry David Thoreau, was no hermit, but a survivalist and philosopher who personified the best of American values of self-reliance, simplicity, love of the land, individualism and defense of personal liberty against governmental overreaching.
He lived simply on Walden Pond from 1845-1847 without a GPS, iPod, iPhone, laptop or wi-fi. Long before we developed a dependence on electronic devices, Thoreau defined some first principles for personal autonomy and survival. We find them in Walden, his gift of essential life strategies that we ought to re-learn before stuffing our G.O.O.D. bags and thinking that we have prepared ourselves to meet the Black Swans ahead. He would warn us today that we must not bet our lives on electronic survival devices because others control them and can jam them by the flick of a switch.
Thoreau’s EDC bag
This article lifts up seven of Thoreau’s survival principles that we can rely upon; that each of us can own at no cost, and which no government or terrorist can destruct. Think of these principles as the fabric of an indestructible carry bag large enough to stuff with all our plans and tools for personal survival.
Many surprises await us in the 2000s. This we know, but none of us knows the timing. Thus, we create short-term and long-term survival strategies. Thoreau’s principles are an overarching everyday strategy, holding that a life worth living depends upon remaining free and independent, living as autonomous men and women alert and able to confront, ignore, or go around obstacles in our way. The best survival strategy is to be always ready, but live well always.
The individual versus the world
"Simplify, simplify," Thoreau repeated, and be certain that you have the essentials for life – food, shelter, fuel and clothing – under your control. Thoreau’s sojourn in Walden woods lasted two years, two months and two days in the cabin he built himself. It was no coincidence that his move-in date was the fourth of July. Thoreau explained, "I went to 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."
Writing four hours a day on the shore of Walden Pond, he pondered how an individual could maintain his autonomy against a mighty government, powerful business interests and a growing trend to materialism. Just as in 1845, our politicians continue to grab power by making thousands of promises. What they deliver is trillion dollar debts and more promises. It is said that each of us now owns $2 million of government debt. (Have you budgeted for that?) In a cozy relationship with politicians, business spends billions coaxing us to buy things we do not need, that rarely perform as advertised and that often drag us under a pile of debt. Thoreau saw a way for an individual to get around these growing influences, and he spelled it out in Walden.
What’s essential; what’s not
To emphasize his points, he often wrote in extremes. For example, Thoreau defined anything non-essential to life as a "luxury." While he succumbed to a few luxuries himself, Thoreau spent within his means by deciding his own balance of essentials and luxuries and then earned just enough to sustain it. He called this living "deliberately", and it was the centerpiece of his life strategy. If he lived deliberately, he would not get into debt and therefore, not become enslaved by work to pay it off. Debt is more than dollars and cents because it represents the amount of life we must trade in work to pay it off. Time is money, and Thoreau became rich by acquiring it.
Thoreau enjoyed the work he did, but tried to work as little as possible. He believed that society had it all wrong about the role of work in life and said so in his Harvard graduation speech. People sat up in their seats as he declared that they had things backwards and that they should work just one day a week and have the other six to do what was important to them. This was no utopian dream. It is how he actually lived. Incidentally, I verified this with the Institute at Walden Woods.
Personal responsibility to do what’s right
Thoreau believed that each of us has an intuitive sense of morality, what is right and wrong. He held that we have a personal responsibility to uphold higher moral laws when they come into conflict with manufactured laws. Consequently, he had a personal theory of "nullification" of government law when it conflicted with moral law. He maintained that no government has any "pure right over my person or property but what I concede to it.” Thus he was philosophically consistent that as a good neighbor, he would train with the Concord militia because he chose to. However, he chose not to pay a tax to a government waging an unjust war in Mexico, and that cost him a night in jail.
Thoreau’s arrest inspired his world-famous essay Civil Disobedience where he proclaimed, "I heartily accept the motto, – ‘That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically." Many people mistakenly limit Thoreau’s thinking to passive resistance. He railed against the government’s hanging of John Brown who raided the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry to arm slaves. Violence is not the preferred way to protest government policies, but as a last resort, Thoreau agreed with President Thomas Jefferson who wrote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Today few of us could replicate Thoreau’s life in a 10 x 15 foot cabin a mile from his closest neighbor. What we can do whether we live in New York City, Los Angeles, or in between is to think of Walden as a state of mind.
Walden’s principles and maxims are as relevant in 2012 as in 1853. In fact, times were remarkably similar to our world today. Global competition was common. Better quality German pencils nearly drove the Thoreau family pencil business under. The Panic of 1837 was as severe as our financial downturn today. A real estate bubble burst due to sub-prime lending, and real estate prices plummeted. Families lost jobs, spending power, and risked their savings as half the banks in America folded within weeks. The federal government, whose policies touched off the contagion, was growing in power and would continue piling on public debt. Even then, the U.S. government depended upon foreign countries to finance its operations.
As the nation entered the industrial revolution, Walden was Thoreau’s challenge to a society forgetting cultural values and practices of the first Americans such as self- reliance, thrift, and the importance of the family. Fortunately, those practices are coming back into style, as survivalists worldwide look to authentic sources such as Survival Blog to re-learn skills our consumer culture has forgotten. These tried and true skills together with the seven critical Thoreau principles taken from my book Walden Today combine to make us better prepared every day.
Thoreau’s Choices to Live Deliberately:
1. Be true to yourself.
In 1837, Thoreau was one of the first to identify societal pressure as the underlying motivation that drove people to consume more than they could pay for. As we know, Thoreau resisted pressure to conform; his brain thrummed to the beat of what he called a "different drummer.” He wrote, “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.” He urged us to think for ourselves – to believe nothing told us by church bureaucracy, government or acquaintances without first checking it out and deciding for ourselves. Nor had he any confidence in advice from his elders: “Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”
In life, we alone have the job of choosing what to believe, and how to act upon what we determine. Any lifestyle or work, no matter how humble or unconventional is a success – as long as it works for you. Thoreau adds, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind…Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?” In other words, Thoreau exhorts us to question society’s norms because the herd may understand an issue exactly backwards, often due to the influence of media. There are no do-overs in life, so do not waste time living up to someone else’s expectations.