I went to the woods
Because I wished to live deliberately,
To front only the essential facts of life,
And see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not,
When I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
I did not wish to live what was not life,
Living is so dear
Nor did I wish to practice resignation,
Unless it was quite necessary.
I wanted to live deep
And suck out all the marrow of life,
To live so sturdily and Spartan-like
As to put to rout all that was not life,
To cut a broad swath and shave close,
To drive life into a corner,
And reduce it to its lowest terms.
–Henry David Thoreau
From the above excerpt, Thoreau changes his environment so as to strip life of its makeup and, in turn, discover its underying natural beauty and true purpose. He rejects resignation to his fellow man’s nonessential projections of what life is about, claiming irreconciliable difference as the basis for his philosophical divorce.
What Thoreau seeks is life’s hidden formula for happiness and purpose. Though his changed environment is an ideal catalyst for attaining the revelatory treasure he seeks, he fails to recognize that his endeavor will be of no avail. As King Solomon explains: “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” Ecclesiastes 8:17, Holy Bible.
Rather, King Solomon, the wisest “man” to step foot on the Earth, advises humanity: “Of many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandment, for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:12-13.
But where does Thoreau’s desire arise from? What is the source of his discontentment with life? What about life instinctually drove him to seek more? My guess is Thoreau, like King Solomon, acted upon his inherent curiosity, a void of sorts, that intensified in accord with his augmented awareness that life’s grand design begs to question that he was missing something or someone–a link to ascribe form to his notions of earthly purpose.
Thoreau’s desire drove him to reject society’s notions of happiness and purpose, to wit: family, romance, wealth, fame, career, and pleasureful experience. Thus, Thoreau arrives at King Solomon’s conclusion: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!'” Ecclesiastes 12:8. After indulging in all matters (wisdom and folly, pleasures, time, toil, riches, destiny, advancement, and God) under the sun, King Solomon concluded that what ultimately matters is our exercised duty to God.
God is what Thoreau may have been looking for in the woods (like Buddha). God is what the wise truly seek. For Thoreau could not in and of himself discover God. But I guarantee: once he did, his void of life and purpose would have been satsified. And the philosophically-deficient life he walked away from would now be rendered purposeful and exceedingly meaningful.
The wise come to learn that after achieving the aspirations they once ambitiously pursued, the value of which will inevitably depreciate. Fulfillment, then, would require more and more achievements. And the value of “more or and more” would also wane. In light of this, what does a man value beyond that which he already has, if what he has (or will have) loses its value?
Despite all the fame and fortune King Solomon amassed on earth, the only thing he found that imputed purpose to life itself was fulfilling his duty to God. All else he deemed meaningless. So while a change in your environment may quiet life’s distractions and be an effective means of promoting change, substantial life change only occurs upon establishing your relationship with God. For although Jesus made His “spirit journey” into the wilderness, and John the Baptist, his sojourn to the desert, it was for the purpose of displaying their loyalty to and deepening their relationship with God.
While it is clear that Thoreau changed his environment (i.e., things) in order to change his philosophical outlook on life (i.e., himself), it is unclear as to the means by which he sought to facilitate philosophical change. Still, I believe Thoreau was wise enough to work God into his calculus for change: “Things do not change: People change.”
Changing one’s environment (or circumstances) is merely the first step toward attaining “true” change. This prompts the question: when will you be prepared peel away from the status quo and make your first step toward change?