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Unforgettable Christmas Lessons from Henry David Thoreau

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

And why my students didn't quite get it

cabin in the woods like Thoreau at Walden Pond
Photo by Olivier Guillard on Unsplash

Can you exist without a cell phone?

Years ago, I taught in the community college system. Every year about this time, I think of my American Literature students and their reaction to one of my favorite discussions.

They rolled their eyes and gasped.

“You’re kidding, right? You CAN’T be serious! With not even a phone?”

Such was their reaction to my announcement that a large part of me longs to live like Henry David Thoreau, the writer, philosopher, naturalist, eccentric whose quiet contemplations at Walden Pond remain meaningful a century after he wrote them.

How could I make this class, the majority of them 18–year-old business majors, appreciate the wisdom of Thoreau? How could I explain the calming effect of nature to students who said their idea of nature was watching the movie Revenant? How could I hope to get them to see the beauty of “simplification” if they thought you couldn’t exist without a cell phone and social media?

Grizzly bear
Photo by Sebastian Scheuer on Unsplash

I tried.

I explained that I would like nothing better than to spend a month of solitude in natural surroundings. That I’d like to be in a lighthouse watching the ocean for days and feeling the salt-spray on my skin. Or in a mountain cabin listening to gurgling streams and smelling the woods. Nobody around me but the sky and the earth.

The need for people, noise, and social media

“But what would you do all the time? You’d go crazy!?”

They were adamant that Thoreau was weird, a lunatic that NO ONE should follow.

“You couldn’t talk to anybody. No communication!” they trilled.

One boisterous young man exclaimed, “There’d be no parties!”

The class clamored for an answer. “What would you do all the time?”

“I’d write. I’d read. I’d muse and meditate. I’d listen to the birds, watch the clouds, and touch the ice crystals on the windows.” (Didn’t my students ever long for silence and the time to contemplate life?)

I kept trying.

“I’d think great thoughts if I only had the time” (sounding a bit like the scarecrow from Wizard of Oz as he wished for a brain.) “What creativity might be tapped if I weren’t so concerned with cooking dinners, grading papers, chauffering, prepping lessons, doing laundry, going Christmas shopping, wrapping presents, baking cookies….You know what I mean?”

They didn’t know what I meant. If any of them did, they weren’t speaking up.

They declared, “But still, Mrs. G, you can’t think all the time!”

Losing the battle, but hopefully not the war, I moved on to discussion of quotes like

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

lives of quiet desperation
Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

“The seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all…have accumulated dross but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”

Thoreau propounds living in a simple place so that your life is not spent paying rent. (The house at Walden was 10 feet by 15 feet.) He argues that

“money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul”

and that

“men are slowly buried alive under the burdens of their possessions.”

buried by money and possessions
Photo by Wei Ding on Unsplash

Thoreau, Christmas, and the theory of simplicity

It’s right to read Thoreau with the onset of Christmas because he puts things in perspective. Simplify instead of complicate. More thought, less “bought.” Fewer regulations and more contemplations.

The spiritual meaning of Christmas is overwhelmed with details: shopping, baking, wrapping, packing, giving, getting, spending and sending. For teachers, it’s a time when grading, recording, averaging, marking, and evaluating take precedence.

Gifts for the multitude, grades for everyone, shopping for some, wrapping for each, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. Right?

I think of Thoreau every Christmas season. I long to follow his advice, but my longing is cerebral. My physical presence is pulled into the hectic pace and “must buy” philosophy of the world.

Unlike my students, I can see the appeal of living in the woods.

Like my students, I exist in a world of cell phones, social media, and material possessions.

But year after year, Thoreau’s words linger in my brain:

“Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let our affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand…Simplify, simplify!”

Not all my students got it, but the lesson was really for me.

I wish for that one quiet time when, like Thoreau, I can shake off the materialism I’ve embraced. I want to enjoy the season for the reason, to know in my soul a truly “silent night,” and not fritter Christmas — or my life — away on details.

solitude and contemplation with the moon
Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash

Melissa Gouty is a writer, reader, and thinker who appreciates solitude “far from the maddening crowd.” She knows that Thoreau cheated a bit at Walden because he had visitors and went into town occasionally for meals and laundry, but she still loves his basic message of living deliberately and simply.

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