In the summer of 1845, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) moved into a small, spartan cabin he had built on the wooded edge of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He lived there, as simply as he felt he could, for two years, two months, and two days. In his own words, here’s why:
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. (Walden, 31)
“Living is so dear.” Thoreau felt this deeply. He didn’t want to discover too late that he had missed life’s essential preciousness. And he knew this was a real danger. As he looked around, he saw lots of shallow living.
Looking for Real Life
He saw that the vast majority of people, both religious and non, were absorbed by trivialities like fashion and social status and fancy food and the best wines and bigger houses and wealth accumulation and all the life-consuming labor it required to attain and maintain these possessions. People just assumed that what everybody else seemed to value must be valuable, and very few stopped to reflect on whether or not that was true. It disturbed Thoreau that
shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. (32)
Thoreau believed that in chasing shams and delusions, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (4). He determined not to live this way.
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, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (31)
He published his account in 1854, in the book that became his most famous: Walden, or Life in the Woods.
Long Line of Lookers
Did Thoreau find what he was looking for? Did he suck the marrow out of life — not wasting even life’s bones for nourishment?
He did well in unmasking the delusionary nature of the daily pursuits that waste many lives — pursuits that have only multiplied since Thoreau’s day. For that reason alone, reading Walden is beneficial. He did well in simplifying his life in order to enjoy deeply the deep wonders of creation — wonders that are all around us. This too is a benefit of reading Walden, if we will actually strive to do the same in our contexts.
But did he “rout out all that was not life”? Did he find out what life essentially is? No, he didn’t. Like the long line of life-lookers before and after him, Thoreau identified vanity parasites that suck so much time and energy and resources out of people’s lives, but did not discover the essential essence or meaning of life. Thoreau’s experience would have made him agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes that “the wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness,” but he also “perceived that [death] happens to all of them” (Ecclesiastes 2:14).
Simplicity and solitude in the Walden woods yielded Thoreau helpful reflections on life — especially how not to live. But the essence of life was not in simplicity and solitude. Otherwise he would not have left off his spartan experiment. Thoreau was a Transcendentalist, not a Christian. He references more Hindu texts in Walden than biblical texts. But it’s interesting that his closing remarks in the book express his longing for “a resurrection and immortality” (106). Walden helped him see things, but he still hadn’t found what he was looking for.
Where to Find Marrow
And that’s because the essence of life is not found merely in simplicity and solitude and trying to get closer to a nature pulsing with life and convulsing in death. Life is not in today’s minimalism movement or sustainable living movement, nor is it in dream houses or bucket-list pursuits. All these things are “vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14) if we are not finding life’s essence, its meaning, in the Creator of life. The unwasted life is the life we receive from him and live for him (John 1:12–13).
But Thoreau recognized a biblical truth when he weighed the vanity of many people’s life pursuits: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). A good question for us Christians in the affluent West is, Are we taking care and being on our guard against all covetousness? Do we have any idea how much of our lives are being siphoned off by the incessant demands to attain or maintain our desired lifestyles? Do we have any idea how much good we cannot do to others because of these incessant demands?
The marrow of life is not in our possessions or titles or degrees or anything else that will pass away with this age. The marrow is found in the man Christ Jesus and the mission he has given us. All transitory gifts God provides are for us to enjoy and for us to employ in the mission he calls us to (1 Timothy 6:17–19). But if we look to these things for life’s marrow, we will find them hollow bones.
What Thoreau Never Caught
This emptiness is shown by what has become of the site of Thoreau’s experiment in pursuing the marrow of life. Walden is almost sacred ground for many, memorialized with granite stones like a grave. A half a million pilgrims visit the site each year, because they resonate with Thoreau’s God-given sense that life should not be wasted. Though, ironically, the grounds now house a state-of-the-art visitor center and gift shop.
It isn’t so much in Thoreau’s simplicity that he points to the way that leads to life. It’s in his ending words, his intuitive sense that there must be a better future than this — “a resurrection and immortality.” His intuition was right, even if his religious conclusions were not.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Which is why Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). And it’s why Paul said that those who put their hope in the Resurrection and the Life “[store] up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).
No one in heaven envies the rich of this world. No one covets the famous. No one praises the powerful. They have discovered what it means to “live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” They have found that which is truly life: Jesus Christ.