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In Honor of Henry David Thoreau’s Birthday – Be Yourself, and Define Your Own Success

“…be yourself- not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” 
― Henry David Thoreau

Today would be the 195th birthday of legendary philosopher, poet, political pundit, abolitionist, and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who remains, to this day, one of the world’s most important voices for environmentalism, protest (his work against slavery) and the true nature of the self vs. consumer culture.

We know, it’s been awhile since you were tested on history, but here’s your Cliff Notes / abbreviated Wiki:

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic,surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.     Thoreau studied at Harvard University between 1833 and 1837.

Thoreau’s family owned a pencil factory, which he worked in for much of his life. He was taken under the wing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emerson took a paternal and at times patronizing interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to a circle of local writers and thinkers – and of course Emerson was responsible for sending him to live on his land at Walden Pond.  Thoreau also lived with the Emersons at times, serving as the children’s tutor, an editorial assistant, and repair man/gardener.

Thoreau’s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and “Yankee” love of practical detail. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.

Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically afterwards. Recognizing the terminal nature of his disease, Thoreau spent his last  three years revising and editing his unpublished works, particularly The Maine Woods and Excursions, and petitioning publishers to print revised editions of A Week and Walden. He also wrote letters and journal entries until he became too weak to continue. His friends were alarmed at his diminished appearance and were fascinated by his tranquil acceptance of death. When his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded: “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing”, followed by two lone words, “moose” and “Indian”. He died on May 6, 1862 at age 44.

From the conclusion of Walden Pond:

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

In Thoreau’s honor….what are you doing to live the life of your dreams?  If you’re not, what’s holding you back?

 

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