“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
– Henry David Thoreau
In his book “Walden”, Henry David Thoreau advocates a life of solitude, of retreating from the clutches of industrialization, and into the embrace of nature. With that, according to Thoreau, one could live a simple yet fulfilled life.
Reading his writing, one could picture Thoreau enjoying his own company in his humble cabin in Walden Pond, Massachusetts, and its surrounding wilderness, curiously gazing at the ice and wildlife around him and describing them in astute and vivid detail.
One perhaps couldn’t help but wish to have a similar courage to leave behind the craziness of modern living. Especially in our current age, we live in an “always on” culture. We are endlessly connected via our smartphones, at the expense of a real social life. We live in a deluge of information, and are in lieu of wisdom. We are surrounded by virtual friends, and are left still feeling desperately empty and alone.
It’s troublesome enough to leave our phones for a few minutes, and to follow a path similar to Thoreau’s seems like a unattainable aspiration.
But there’s a catch to it.
The thing is, since Walden’s publication, critics have ferociously debunked Thoreau’s romantic myths of solitary living. For one thing, as critics have pointed out, Thoreau was far from being completely alone during his retreats. His cabin wasn’t located in the wilderness, but only near it. It was a half hour’s walk from his hometown of Concord, where he traveled to and fro for his meals and social visits. Likewise, his friends and family would regularly visit him too at his cabin.
But as Cal Newport argues in his book “Digital Minimalism”, Thoreau’s blend of solitude and social connection was not something that he had tried to hide or gloss over. Rather, it was the real message that he had tried to convey. Quoting the historian W. Barksdale Maynard, Newport writes, “(Thoreau’s) intention was not to inhabit a wilderness, but to find wildness in a suburban setting.”
Thoreau, as it turned out, wasn’t interested in completely alienating himself from his social circle and modern life, but in simply practicing regular and healthy doses of solitude or “wildness” where he saw fit.
As Newport explains, “What Thoreau sought in his experiment at Walden was the ability to move back and forth between a state of solitude and a state of connection. He valued time alone with his thoughts — staring at ice — but he also valued companionship and intellectual stimulation. He would have rejected a life of true hermit-style isolation with the same vigor with which he protested the thoughtless consumerism of the early industrial age.”
To relate that with our current situation, this isn’t to say that digital technology or social media is inherently bad. They’re just tools after all. It’s just about being intentional in using them, and using them well, so that they don’t end up using you. If you’re constantly feeling anxious, or if it affects your self-esteem, then you need make a change.
Be sure to give yourself healthy doses of solitude. As I’ve written in another article, make your downtime. Give yourself a block of time where you’re forced to focus away from your phone or log out from social media. Go out for a cycle. Enjoy your coffee. Play with kids. Have meaningful face-to-face conversations. Do something physical, or something that involves your hands and thoughts — play music, paint, work on a circuit board. Teach yourself to be alone, and to value your own input.
Muslims pray five times a day, and that’s a wonderful thing. Because at least five times a day, you have the opportunity to let such exclusive moments be only between you and God — no one else, and nothing else.
It would be good to keep certain things analog too, so that you wouldn’t have to be too dependent on your phone. I still write notes in my pocket notebook, which I carry wherever I go — a habit I’ve kept since high school. I still prefer to use a physical calendar, which I place on my working desk. And I still wake up in the morning to an old-fashioned alarm clock.
Again, I have to say, I love my phone. I love the Internet, and I love being able to quickly access information and entertainment, and virtually connect with my friends. But there’s so much more to life than that. My phone isn’t my life, but only a part of it. There are plenty of things — even small things — that could give life a richer texture, that I couldn’t find digitally.
It’s not about denouncing these things, because a life of alienation isn’t good either. It’s simply about finding a good balance — or healthy doses of solitude, as well as connection.