Real Comforts

“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

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Photo by Alex von der Assen as featured on Kent Griswold’s Tiny House Blog.

Heavy words when you think about them.

I like nice stuff.  I buy good clothes, decent shoes, and drive a new(ish) vehicle.  We all like new, nifty, better, and clever things.  The problem is that we are trained from a young age to grab the newest gizmo and gimmick presented to us.  We are programmed to stockpile and hoard.  Advertisers know this.  Bankers know this.  We spend what we earn, and then a little more.

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When we pick up an object, we don’t always think of how this thing will add value to our life; or whose life was devalued to make it and bring it to us.

More stuff is not the path to happiness…

Henry David Thoreau, “Woods Burner”

Here’s an interesting article about Thoreau’s early career and the incident that may have been a catalyst for his move out of town into the woods nearby.  As it happened a year before the Walden experiment, it may have had some bearing on the idea.

From the Boston Globe:

On April 30, 1844, Thoreau started a blaze in the Concord Woods, scorching a 300-acre swath of earth between Fair Haven Bay and Concord. The fire was an accident, but the destruction of valuable woodland, the loss of firewood and lumber, and the narrowly avoided catastrophe that almost befell Concord itself angered the local residents and nearly ruined Thoreau’s reputation. For years afterward, Thoreau could hardly walk the streets of his hometown without hearing the epithet “woods burner.”

…at the end of April, Thoreau went boating with his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar. They caught a mess of fish and Thoreau built a fire in a tree stump near the water’s edge to cook a chowder. The winds were strong and the woods were exceptionally dry from near-drought conditions. The fire leapt from the stump, into the dry grass, and then rushed toward the trees.

Thoreau and Hoar tried to extinguish the flames on their own, stomping in the burning grass and beating the flames with a board from their boat. But once the fire reached the trees, they knew there was no stopping it without help. Hoar set out for Concord in the boat, and Henry ran through the woods ahead of the flames, seeking help nearby. He encountered one farmer who refused to help him, because he thought the fire was “none of his stuff.” Thoreau ran on, eventually encountering an owner of the woods then ablaze. The man ran to Concord to summon the town, and Thoreau, exhausted, climbed to the top of Fair Haven Hill to wait for help and watch the woods burn.

A few months after the fire, Emerson purchased a plot of land at Walden Pond in order to protect it from woodcutters. And in March of the following year, Channing wrote to Thoreau, urging him to go to Emerson’s plot at Walden and begin the “grand process of devouring yourself alive.” Thoreau moved to Walden four months later. Perhaps he sought refuge from the angry people of Concord, perhaps he felt compelled to atone, somehow, for his offence, or perhaps the fire awoke him to the fragility of life: nature’s, man’s, his own.

Years before the fire, Thoreau wrote in his journal, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” And later in “Walden” he wrote that he came to the woods because he did not want to die having never lived. Perhaps this keen sense of urgency – the impulse to live the life he has imagined before it is too late – derives in part from Thoreau’s having witnessed how quickly an unthinking act can turn tragic.

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There is some interesting history I was not familiar with until a few years ago.  Here’s the link to the full article at the Boston Globe.

A shiftless, bookish fellow, who worked well with his hands but without much career direction or ambition to take the easy path.  Sounds like a familiar story.

A Little Art and Some Wise Words from Thoreau for the End of the Week

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The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest.  The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town’s poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable.

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Diogenes in poverty by Jules Bastien-Lepage.

Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me. The philosopher said: “From an army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought.” Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights. The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, “and lo! creation widens to our view.” We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

From the Conclusion of Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  Emphasis and layout are mine.

You can change your life.  Have an excellent weekend.

You can change your life.

“The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise”

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However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Another from Thoreau

Part of a beautiful essay by Henry David Thoreau

Nowadays almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise. I looked again, and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.

Read the rest of Walking here.