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Tag: Henry Thoreau

Thoreau on the interconnectedness and meaning of life

Umbrellas in the rain by Ed Yourdon via FlickrHow can severe disappointment provide meaning?

Sometimes when life disappoints us severely, it is hard to imagine what Viktor Frankl means when he says that people who survived the concentration camps expected it all to make sense in the end.

“How?”  we wail.  “How could that ever make sense?”

I suspect what we are crying is that “No, I won’t let it make sense.  Because to make it make sense is to say it is OK and I cannot say it OK that you killed my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, my cousin.”

Possibly to have faith in the universe feels disloyalty and we prefer lack of faith to lack of loyalty.

Loyalty is a good thing and loyalty should be honored and celebrated.

Life is often unfair

But life does disappoint, in big ways and small.  Often we feel very profoundly that life is unfair.

I am not saying we should do nothing about unfairness.   Not me.

But the writers like Thoreau point us to another way forward.

First, look at the interconnections of the world.  See the whole picture. Loyalty is part of that picture.  Put it in.

Then, decide what you think.

Thoreau’s dilemma of a rain day

This is Thoreau writing about a rainy day at Walden when he elected to be a subsistence farmer so that he would have time to read and write.

His beans are important to him.   He became a farmer to have time, and the weather is throwing out his plans, challenging the very raison d’etre of his project.

He needs his beans too.  Otherwise he will starve.

But nonetheless he brings first the outlook of a contemporary quantum physicist.  Everything is connected. A rainy day may be disruptive; but it is not an insult thrown at us by the universe.

It is a invitation by the universe to bring ourselves into a more connected relationship with everything around us.

Thoreau on a rainy day

Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness.

While enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.

The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too.

Though it prevents me hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing.

If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the lowlands, it will be good for the grass of the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me.

Sometimes, when I compare myself to other men, it seems as if I were more favoured by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of – as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.  I do not flatter myself, but if it be possible they flatter me.

(p. 114 of the 1927 edition of Walden)

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Procrastination, Thoreau, and modern psychologists

I'm not working by quinn.anya via FlickrFeeble attempts to dispel procrastination

I am tired.  I am procrastinating.  I have  a messy confused project on my desk so I switched on the Conservative party conference under the pretext that Hague makes sense and I should listen to the Prime Minister.  I have no idea who was speaking but that time-filling gambit didn’t last long. British politicians SHOUT.  Anything on my desk seems preferable to the assault on my ears.

Procrastination doesn’t work

I thought briefly I had found the fail safe solution to procrastination.  Switch on a party political broadcast.

But within moments, my thoughts had drifted to a book in the other room:  Walden, Henry Thoreau’s classic account of his experiment living frugally in the woods while he studied.

Henry Thoreau and Walden

Thoreau was a principled man, it seems.  In the same breath that he talks of  hoeing beans, he talks of sheltering runaway slaves.  He mentions just as dispassionately about being jailed for not paying his taxes because he refused to pay tax to a government that condoned slavery.

Thoreau and procrastination

Thoreau would have thought less of me for doing work that leads to procrastination.  He believes his experiment for living on almost nothing (rather than steeling himself to live on almost nothing) demonstrates:

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the licence of a higher order of things.

In proportion, as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitde, nor poverty povery, nor weakness weakness.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost: that is where they should be.  Now put foundations under them.”  (p. 280 of the 1927 edition).

Thoreau and self-regulation

I wonder what Thoreau would have thought of modern psychology.  I think he would have despised it.  Yet some of it is helpful.

Peter Gollwitzer’s work on “wish to intent” and “crossing the Rubicon” highlights the phenomenon that Thoreau describes.  When we are “in full flight”, when we are in flow (Cziksentmihalyi), everything suddently becomes very easy.

Roy Baumeister indirectly also confirms Thoreau’s view.  Baumeister shows experimentally that when we have to make a difficult choice, like eating chocolate instead of something less pleasant like radishes, we show less ability to control ourselves on the next task.  This is why, in David Whyte’s words it is important “to leave all other world’s behind us”.  Or the “the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness”.

When we are tired we need to move toward “the channel in which our life flows”.

A solution to my procrastination

So I am tired.  Allowing myself respite, will help.  Compromising on the quality of that report will not.  Compromise will make me tireder.

Yup, I least I am not fighting distaste.  I have a challenge now; not an annoyance.

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Oh! The roots of postive organizational scholarship in Henry Thoreau and American transcendentalism

Sept2010 by anjanettew via FlickrWalden Pond .   .   .

I had to rummage around on Wikipedia to disentangle my memory traces.  Walden Pond is the home of Henry Thoreau, the American poet.   On Golden Pond is a Fonda movie.

Henry Thoreau .   .  .

I am sure that all well brought up Americans have read Thoreau in the original. The rest of us come to him by the way of quotations.

Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows .  .  .

Henry Thoreau was an “transcendentalist”, which Wikipedia informs me was a New England movement in reaction to the intellectualism of Harvard and the utilitarian church.  To my naïve ears, this sounds like the basic thrust of the French Revolution that rejected the supremacy of priests and their dictates,.  Once we have rejected the priests as the authority in all things, we needed a way to think about secular authority         and social sciences and psychology arose as formalized ways of describing how we each discover our own truth (Remember the Pope anyone?  Not surprisingly, he is not enthused by this venture.)

Transcendentalism underpins much of contemporary positive organizational scholarship

This is an important read.  We see here the essence of dominant aspects of American culture and at least part of the foundations of positive psychology.

Ralph Emerson, I believe, was one of the early proponents.

“So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.

It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth?

And of the affections, — What is good?

By yielding itself passive to the educated Will. .  .

Build, therefore, your own world.

As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.”

As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.

We bring about the world by what we attend to and value.  The world blossoms under the attention of what we value and love.  Whatever situation we are in (like it or not), we move in the direction of the questions we ask and so does it.

This is more appreciative inquiry (Case Western) than positive psychology (Pennsylvania).

It is the start point and as you read the now not so young Thoreau describing his life at Walden Pond, you hear the same complaints that we have about life today.  You hear the echoes of Joseph Campbell who followed a similar experiment with life. You hear British poet David Whyte who reconciled his life a marine biologist and NGO worker with is poetry.  You hear Gen Y Tim Ferris and The Four Hour Work Week.

I am enjoying this!

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