Many years ago, the then Rector of Boston’s Trinity Church, Phillips Brooks (famous for writing the lyrics to the Christmas Song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), was asked by an interviewer, “When were you born?” In response, Mr. Brooks said, “I will tell you about it. It was one Sunday afternoon about 3:30 just after I had finished reading a great book.” That unexpected response displayed Phillips Brooks’ depth of understanding regarding the word “born.”
Wise people through the ages have told us that we can be “born” again and again throughout our lives—each time better than the last. In fact, a few centuries ago, a new term was created to describe this rebirthing process —“Renaissance.” Phillips Brooks was not the first person to experience—or talk about—a profound rebirth after reading a great book.
Such are the feelings I recently enjoyed after my latest reading of “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau. I have read this wonderful book a number of times during my life. Every time I read it, anew, I am challenged to think, to examine my life, to consider possibilities that lay on my path going forward—I literally experience a rebirth—a Renaissance.
Henry David Thoreau is famous for saying, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He noticed that most people merely “exist” (get by, fit in, do as little as possible), when really “living” (deciding what you want out of life and consciously pursuing it) is possible. In his mind, really “living” wasn’t necessarily about how much money a person had, or how many material things they possessed, but about their ability to see the world for its beauty and the many lessons it had to teach.
Here are some of the passages that resonated with me during my most recent reading of Walden:
“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…”
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.”
“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”
“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names… 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.”
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”
As he closed his masterwork, Walden, Henry David Thoreau summarized what he had learned about life—and himself—while living for two years, two months, and two days in the little cabin he built on the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts:
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Thank you, once again, Mr. Thoreau for your profound wisdom—gleaned as an observer of this adventure we call life. Your observations have touched me in a profound way. I have experienced yet another rebirth to a place better than the one I was at before—another Renaissance!
I have made several “pilgrimages” to Walden Pond over the years. Henry David Thoreau’s writings have had a profound impact for good on my life. For this reason, Walden Pond will always be a special place for me.
Through his company, Daily Renaissance, Mark Swain teaches a workshop, and also has a speech, titled, Daily Renaissance–How to Become Your Best Self. Both the workshop and the speech have inspired thousands of people to live life at a higher level. For more information, visit: www.dailyrenaissance.net