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The True Value of the Individual – Reflections on Class Discussion

November 7, 2018

Mr. Fred Rogers, a man whom I consider to be a personal hero of mine, often spoke directly to the children of his audience in saying: “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.” This message, simplistic as it may seem on the surface, forms the cornerstone of how I believe we ought to treat our fellow human beings. Showing this sort of love and compassion to other people, and seeing their inherent value and worth is the foundation of appreciating universal human dignity, and should be embraced, not dismissed.

Listening to our class discussion on the individual and their relationship to society got me to thinking about this belief of mine. One point that several of my fellow Thoreau scholars brought up again and again was that they often felt that society attempts to “measure” the worth of individuals, and pit them against each other in strange, often cruel contests to prove that they are more valuable than each other, or perhaps, that they even have a right to exist at all. It seems tragic to me for human beings to look at one another this way. I agree that individuals may achieve great things, create beautiful writings or works of art, or lead others to magnificent accomplishments, and that these things may entitle a person to renown or respect. I do not yield however the basic dignity and inherent worth that I believe lies at the center of every single human being, regardless of vocation or chosen path in life. To say that some individuals are “too out there” or “aren’t trying hard enough to get ahead” creates a kernel of discomfort in my gut. Yet, I believe I begin to understand what causes this notion to spring into being and to be perpetuated over the course of generations.

We are indoctrinated, nearly from birth it seems, into a hyper-competitive society. Blame capitalism if you want, but I would argue that doing so would be to miss the point of what ills us. Our issue is not one of economics, but one of cultural shaming. Perhaps it is our nation’s religious heritage, with its puritanical devotion to work and “not wasting time idly away”, or some other facet of our people that is uniquely “American”, but it seems to me that we encourage individuals to toil in pursuit of material wealth more than we push them to enjoy the sort of “solitude” which Henry David Thoreau considered so essential to his experiment of living simply.

Too often, we obsess over occupation, that is, career or vocation, when trying to get to know someone, even though we would scarcely allow ourselves to be defined solely by how we make money if we were asked. To demonstrate this, try and imagine meeting a new person for the first time. Conjecture at the first thing you two might ask each other. Chances are, if you’re a student, it’s “what are you majoring in?” or if you’ve already graduated: “so what do you do?” the implication of the latter question not needing to be vocalized (what do you do… for a living). In either case, what the other person intends to do to sustain themselves materially is of the utmost concern. I cannot help but wonder how such a first conversation might go if one instead opened with “What do you like to do for fun?”, “What makes you happy?”,  or “What gives your life meaning?” Such questions would likely strike your conversation partner as strange, but would get closer to the heart of them as a person. I like to think Thoreau would favor this second form of questioning.

Why does our culture push us so? To give it the benefit of the doubt, I believe society truly thinks that material wealth and its accumulation will make us happy, which is after all, our ultimate goal in life. It praises individuals who put their shoulder to the plow and “work” toward the accumulation of material goods and possessions because it hopes that such individuals will provide the dilly-dalliers of the world with a role model whom they can look to to guide them back to the proper way. Society worries that those of us who “wander” in hobbies, travel, and experimentation in Thoreauvian solitude may find ourselves lost on the path to prosperity and therefore, never find our happiness. I concur with J.R.R. Tolkien however, who speaks through Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: “Not all who wander are lost.” Or, as Thoreau puts it in Walden: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”

It is often the person that revels in their solitude, who toils in the mental kitchen and workshop and spurns or at least disfavors the social parlor who creates some of our most beautiful works of art, or designs the next technological marvel. Surely, our society gives them credit after they have won their fame and renown, but not before. Who’s to say who will become the next Steve Jobs or Michelangelo? Is it really possible for us to know for sure until they have completed that wondrous act that they set out to do in the first place? I would argue that we are all potential Da Vinci’s or Lincolns. It is the encouragement we receive along our journey, combined with our own, internal ambition which drives us to achieve, not some abstract wishes placed upon us by those who hardly know us as we truly are.

We should not hold individuals to some universal standard of achievement, to any one metric by which we determine their worth. Nor should we deny them the basic goodwill and love they each deserve just for being alive. Their perspective, regardless of what it is or who they are, is unique, beautiful, and necessary. The world would not be the same place without them, and once their voice is gone, it may be lost forever. Therefore, let us celebrate voices, however loud or soft they may carry themselves with, and foster individuals within our society to “step to the music they hear”, as Thoreau would have wished. Lincoln, another of my most cherished heroes gave the following advice, which I have always held to be a creed for my actions: “Whatever you are, be a good one.” I think that’s a good way to look at ourselves and the world in which we live.

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Did You Stop to Take Time and Enjoy Nature Today?

October 30, 2018
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Geneseo Fall 2018

As I was walking to class today,  I stopped and admired this gorgeous tree. The sun was shining through it just right, hitting the leaves and reflecting the prettiest golden color imaginable. It naturally reminded me that God was telling me to take a breath from my busy day. Then I thought of our Thoreau class, and how we have previously discussed about taking time to admire nature. As I continue to walk to class, and throughout the rest of the day I tried to keep reminding myself not about how busy I was, but instead reminding to look for nature. After my last class of the day at 5:30 pm, I got to see this beautiful scene by the gazebo.  This is my challenge to you Thoreau-Harding Project class, look for nature. It will surprise you.

Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, outdoor and nature

Geneseo Fall 2018

 

 

Class Discussion of Walden – 9/25

October 29, 2018

The day’s discussion was facilitated by Yadelin, and concerned Chapters 7 through 9 of The Days of Henry Thoreau by Dr. Walter Harding, as well as “Reading” and “Sounds” from Thoreau’s Walden.

Yadelin began our discussion by asking us to consider Thoreau’s first paragraph on page 64 of Walden. Here, Thoreau asserts that: “In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal.” While we pondered this quotation, Yadelin guided our thoughts with a query: Did we believe, based on our understanding of Thoreau and own experiences, that the pursuit of abstract truth is more important than the acquisition of material, tangible possessions? A difficult question to answer, to be sure, but nonetheless several classmates eagerly waded into constructing responses.

Patrick brought up Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, and put forth the notion that self actualization, the sort of “truth” that Thoreau speaks of reaching for, may only be attained once the lower, more basic needs of survival have been attained. Many in our class seemed to agree with this premise. After all, how can one be worried about spiritual enlightenment when they are more concerned with starving or freezing in the winter? There was some dissent however, which argued that perhaps society encourages individuals to spend too much time focusing on the accumulation of excess comfort, a point which Thoreau himself argues in “Economy”, Walden’s very first chapter.

Taking the conversation in another direction, Jake wondered if through tangible labor and possessions, would it be at all possible to simultaneously pursue the intangible nature of truth? To this end, he brought up his experiences in physical work and said he derived a sense of clarity from these tasks. On this point, some were able to find relation to their own experience.

Dr. Gillin next asked us to consider whether or not the two pursuits which framed Yadelin’s question: material goods and abstract truth, needed to be mutually exclusive. Using our very class as an example, with class discussions on Tuesdays and physical labor on Thursdays, he encouraged us to think of times when we have been engaged mentally and engaged physically, and whether those times had ever overlapped in our lives. The center of this proverbial venn diagram would seem to be a very cozy place to find oneself. It would create a system in equilibrium, where the physical informs the mental, and vice versa.

While Yadelin gathered her thoughts and prepared to ask her second question, Dr. Gillin next asked us to consider a passage from Walden that another professor said that they found deeply troubling. In this passage, Thoreau writes, on page 4: “I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south. It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” Given the potentially offensive nature of the sentences to some, Dr. Gillin asked us whether or not we believed it was possible to understand the point that Thoreau was trying to make when writing them. Was his comparison deeply and utterly inappropriate? Or, in an abstract sense, could one argue that Thoreau was approaching something like truth?

Two sides naturally developed to defend either viewpoint. Jake argued that no matter how “asleep” Thoreau might call some of his white contemporaries, comparing their mental state to the situation faced by African American slaves on plantations was unacceptable and crude.

Raina on the other hand, contended that if one reads the quote in its proper context, and reads it at only the abstract level that Thoreau likely intended of it, then one can find the value in Thoreau’s thought. If one does not pay any mind to the cultivation of mindfulness in themselves, Thoreau warns, they risk trapping themselves in a task as hopeless as that of Sisyphus: to find fulfillment and meaning in the endless acquisition of possessions and societal approval.

After our brief detour into the implications of that comparison, Yadelin asked us to consider Thoreau’s assertion that “Life itself had become his amusement.” What did that mean to us? Did we think that it was possible to find the happiness we are looking for without moving in one particular direction or another in our lives? I contended that such an end was indeed possible, and in some ways, desirable. If we could attain a feeling of satisfaction and contentment simply from actively, deliberately living our lives as mindfully as we could, we would be well on our way to living not just a life, but a good one.

It was on this note and several nostalgic anecdotes about beloved places in and parts of nature that our discussion came to its conclusion and we moved onto the “business” side of class.

Reflection of Oct. 23rd Discussion

October 29, 2018

During the class discussion, we focused on Thoreau’s degradation of history. In Walden, Thoreau claims that a man does not need to study history to discover what is best for his culture. Many students disagreed with this statement, as they find value in studying history to gain perspective with how one’s own culture fits into the rest of the world and also how understanding a culture’s history impacts how we communicate with a particular person.

 

Some students argued that Thoreau’s misguidedness in regard to history is exemplified in the chapter “Baker Farm.” In this chapter, Thoreau harshly criticizes the Irish family the Fields. He characterizes them as unclean, ignorant, and stubborn. The only positive quality Thoreau attributes to the family is that they have a significant work ethic, but even then, he considers where the work ethic is placed misguided. Thoreau believes instead of spending time completing hard labor, the Fields should instead live a life of leisure.

 

The fact that Thoreau completely chastises this family exemplifies the necessity to understand history. By preaching at the Fields, Thoreau fails to take into account how their background informs the values that they have. The Fields have just fled the potato famine, and thus are content with achieving their own version of the American dream which includes working diligently to be able to afford a variety of foods that were unavailable to them in Ireland. If Thoreau had any sliver of hope in convincing the Fields to change their lifestyle, it would have been necessary to have some historical background of the Fields’ past in order to foster positive discourse. Only by comprehending one’s prior experiences can someone reconcile differences.

 

Additionally, Thoreau’s disregard for the Fields family reveals one of his many contradictions in the work. Thoreau states that everyone should follow their own bliss as individuals. Nevertheless, he often preaches throughout Walden that his way is the only way. In criticizing the Fields and attempting to persuade them to change their lifestyle, Thoreau is not practicing what he preaches. He does the complete opposite of accepting the choices of others. Instead, his arrogance shines through especially in this chapter.

Pond Scum Response

October 29, 2018

While reading Walden and The Days of Henry Thoreau, it has been challenging for me to arrive at a concrete opinion on Thoreau’s character. I’ve often asked myself, are his philosophies worth reading? Are they worth applying in my life? Is Thoreau a hypocrite? And if so does he still have something worth saying?

 

Reading The New Yorker’s Pond Scum has helped me solidify my “take” on Thoreau a bit more. I see him as a man with flaws, just as every human being has. We are all full of our own hypocrisies and self-centeredness. Nevertheless, the fact that Thoreau attempted to follow his own path and live life deliberately is something to be admired.

 

The New Yorker proceeds to outline aspects of Thoreau’s character that are not to be admired, including one specific anecdote that resonated with me greatly. When a ship bound for Boston suffered a shipwreck, Thoreau changed his course for Cape Cod to Boston to examine the scene. When he arrived, he saw victims laying on the shore—their bodies bloated from drowning and others that had been struck repeatedly against rocks. Thoreau’s reaction to the scene was cold and unfeeling. He wrote that he would have been more moved if there was just one body. He identified with the storm instead of the loss of life. He questioned why others wasted pity on the laws of nature.

 

Reading this was shocking. How could someone who has been depicted as so kind and loving to children react in such a callous manner? I still don’t have an explanation or a justification for Thoreau’s reaction. I’d like to think that his unemotional response was merely a result of shock, but I’m not sure if this is true.

 

What I can do is address one of Kathryn Schulz’s points in Pond Scum: the act of cherry picking. In the piece Schulz criticizes individuals who ignore the less appealing components of Walden, which include Thoreau’s frequent contradictions and arrogance, and revere Thoreau’s preaching of nature and independent living. I believe like Schulz that it is essential to have a holistic conception of who Thoreau was. Such is necessary to evaluate his character and determine whether one agrees with his philosophies.

 

Where Schulz and I differ, however, is in the value of cherry picking. Schulz condemns this act, stating that one must accept all of Thoreau’s teachings as true or none of them. With this logic, one would have to do the same with every text. For example, people would have to decide whether they agree with all of the teachings of The Bible or not. This could be problematic for many individuals who consider themselves religious and do not regard everything in The Bible literally. Or we would have to cast out important historical figures or pioneers in particular fields into exile for any actions they have done wrong. No more listening to Michael Jackson. No more reading the words of George Washington.

 

Humans are inherently complicated, and Thoreau is no different than the rest of us. It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with Thoreau, but it is also acceptable find value in some of Thoreau’s teachings. Thus, for the rest of the class I plan to critically assess Thoreau’s philosophies individually, and continue right on cherry-picking the ones I plan to apply to my life.

“Where I Lived” and “What I Lived For” Class Reflection (Sept. 18)

October 28, 2018

During the class discussion, our central theme was how Thoreau’s call to live deliberately resonates with ourselves. As college students, most of us are following similar paths that our families, friends, mentors and society expect of us: attending school and college to achieve a stable career and eventually starting a family. Several students pointed out that at our age, most of us have not questioned these life choices. Additionally, the majority of the class agreed that Thoreau presents an important viewpoint when he argues about the necessity to be fully awake in every moment one lives and every decision one makes.

 

We also mentioned that the idea of being awake and living deliberately can be completed in small ways. For example, Thoreau himself did not live an extravagant life. He was content to reside in Concord and found pleasure out of simple things: conversations with his family and friends and of course admiring Walden Pond and the surrounding nature. Thus, although one might think that to live deliberately is to take chances, travel to new lands, and maybe even live dangerously, the class overall came to a consensus that living deliberately can mean simply finding the beauty in the everyday.

 

Additionally, in order to follow Thoreau’s philosophy and live deliberately, members of the class concluded that it’s essential to find one’s own bliss by following a path that is suitable to one’s own needs. However, this is a lot easier said than done. There are several factors that hinder individuals from achieving this. As mentioned above, society influences people’s actions significantly. Furthermore, the class mentioned that social media impacts how people live their lives in the regard to the everyday as well as their careers. It is ubiquitous now to see people posting their entire lives on social media, including when they go out for a night or when they start a new job. Often others feel as if there is a competition where the measures are success and happiness with acquaintances, friends, and family members. This prevents people from choosing lifestyles, careers and even pastimes that they truly will enjoy due to the influence of others.

 

The class also posed questions to each other about how we stay in touch with our inner selves and whether self-reflection is rewarded by society. In regard to the first question, some stated that they need to set alone time in order to reflect on and process the day’s events. Others commented that they prefer to be with their friends in order to instead self-reflect with someone else. In this style of self-reflection, the friend provides feedback and/or validation. When answering the second question, most stated that self-reflection is not rewarded by society. Students found that society emphasizes a never ceasing goal toward progress—whether holistically or on an individual career-based level. We are not taught how to practice self-care and question our habits and philosophies, which is why many find this class and the English major so valuable. Although many look down on English majors and dispute what they plan to accomplish in terms of a career, several students stated that becoming an English major has been the most valuable decision they have made, as it has provided an avenue for self-reflection.

 

The final point of discussion the class ended on was the value of busying ourselves. Often individuals will fill their schedules in order to distract from self-reflection and the hard questions of life. Thoreau encourages the individual to live life immediately and in the moment, without the sense of planning or constructing an ideal future. Some class members found this concept appealing, but nevertheless stated that they value busying themselves in order to be involved in the Geneseo community and ergo society.

 

Overall, students’ opinions varied in regard to Thoreau’s philosophies. The majority of the class was attracted to the idea of living deliberately and following the beat of their own drums; however, they recognized that doing so has several challenges due to pressure from family, society and social media.

Discussion 10/23/18

October 27, 2018

For today’s class we read from “Walden”, Baker Farm, Higher Laws, and Brute Neighbors. Our conversation was mostly centered around Baker Farm, and how Thoreau’s interactions with the Baker family reflected how he saw them through a stereotypical Irish background.

The first question we began to discuss as a whole was when Thoreau said, “A man will not need to study history to find out what is best for his culture”. This sparked a lot of  responses! Many agreed that it was important to learn your history of where you come from, and of a other places. Patrick gave a good example of why this is important. He said that, “ If someone were to wonder why we treat immigrants they way we do today. They might want to look at how people in the 1900’s were treating them, and how people before them were treating them, to avoid making the same mistakes, but to also understand that this is where we come from today”. We all agreed that not knowing and understanding different cultures would worse, than if we at least knew something.

We also acknowledged the fact that there is a difference between being ignorant and innocence. There are many different hand gestures in a variety of countries that can be insulting in one and inviting in another, this can be an innocent mistake. Once those mistakes become verbal they transition into being ignorant. We all were under the impression that  just being kind is the way to go. Be kind and polite to all types of people you meet regardless of their backgrounds .

We felt that while Thoreau was talking to the Baker family he was viewing them through a very dirty, and poor lens. All though in the biography it mentions that he wasn’t always rude to the Irish, but while reading Walden that was the impression we got from him. Especially when Thoreau and John went fishing and Thoreau didn’t share with John the best bait to use in this area, so John ended up catching zero fish and Thoreau had plenty.  The second example of Thoreau was when he was being rash with the Baker family and was asking them why they had all these luxuries  like butter, tea, and coffee. Was he doing it to be a pain? Or was he doing it to try to show their family his alternative lifestyle?

 

How do you feel about Thoreau and his egotism or his he just giving just trying to give the Baker family another possible way of life they could live?