In the mid-19th century, transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau resigned from civilization and set forth to find the meaning of life. He would spend a day laboring for survival and six working on his philosophy. All the while living in a hut he constructed for under $30, located two miles from the nearest human.
In one of the most touching passages ever written, he declares:
"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."
Thoreau dwelled within a society guided by the Industrial Revolution and its promise of fulfillment through wealth—an environment that aggravated his tendency for depression. At the age of 27, he reached a breaking point. With a suggestion from his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, he withdrew from society to get closely acquainted with one important person: himself.
His time at Walden Pond was nurturing. He writes about being a part of nature instead of exceeding it and the contentment it brought into his life. This freedom meant much time to reflect on contemporary life and its definition of success and value. He believed people are often “sleepers”—absent from their existence. They focus on the trivialities of earthly life and fail to see other approaches to fulfillment. They build their own cage and throw away the key.
Today, over 150 years later, the problem has only gotten worse. Wealth and fame are in the spotlight. We compare our shortcomings to unrealistic, curated versions of “life.” We equate personal worth with financial success. And it is easier than ever to conform, as we can sedate the anguish that comes when we forsake our authenticity. Why switch careers when you can buy the latest iPhone?
The irony is that we excuse our over-busyness by exclaiming, “We work hard so that one day we could relax.” We believe that we will get to a point where we will have enough money to quit everything, move to a remote island, drink coconuts, and enjoy massages for the rest of our lives. We fail to see that it is not the imaginary scene we long for but the emotional virtues it represents: calm, joy, love, and connection. This default path is not the best path (if at all) to get there, just the most conspicuous one.
Thoreau does not suggest that we should forgo all material possessions and live like a hermit. He wants to liberate us from the tyranny of culture and thus create the opportunity for self-realization. Fulfillment begins when we cultivate our unique definitions of happiness, success, work, and love. His philosophy calls us to embody what Socrates knew long ago: that the unexamined life is not worth living.