APRIL POST: I WAS THERE WHEN IT HAPPENED

There were three books in my rural Michigan childhood home: a beat up copy of Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott; and a tiny red “New Testament” that had been passed out free in Sunday School. We had a radio in the barn (the one in the house didn’t work), and TV hadn’t happened yet, so there was a relatively uncluttered flow from those ancient Biblical teachings into my emerging consciousness. “For where your treasure is there will your heart be.” “What does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” On and on.

Here was real time travel. This important human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived 2000 years ago, visits the future through the written word. As my mind matured I could see his wisdom more clearly: don’t get lost in the wrong kind of worldliness; wealth as prestige, for example. Keep it simple. Love God; love the flowers; love the trees; love your fellow creatures. Don’t make wealth the measure of a quality life.

But by the mid 1950’s, things were changing lightning fast. TV had opened the floodgates to an avalanche of hyper excited words and bigger-than-life pretty pictures of material goodies, millions of advertisements brainwashing the population into sleepwalking consumers — indeed into knowing ourselves, our worth, in terms of worldly accumulations.

TV was a sudden, powerful force and I, barely an adolescent, was there when that door opened. It coincided with my family selling the farm and moving into the suburbs of Detroit, and now ourselves drifting into the new religion of material progress — nothing by today’s consumer mentality, but adrift in that direction.

What t’ hell. People are herd animals. What is brainwashing anyway but constantly repeated messages playing on your need to belong. “Buy this, own that, and you will be popular, respected within the herd. You will be liked. You won’t seen by others as apart.

At this time in America, the herd was vacating the countryside in droves to live closer and closer to each other in the cities/suburbs, where we were ironically becoming more and more isolated. No matter. TV brought the herd right into the house, in the form of friendly news teams, morning chat shows, hucksters relentlessly trying to sell us something, you name it.

Via the sit-coms, the neighbors’ living rooms themselves were now in our living room. TV was our new extended family/community. Empty, compared to a real flesh and blood community, but passing itself off as never a dull moment. A laugh a minute, with laugh-tracks that sounded exactly like the laugh tracks sound today, sixty years later, the whole kit-and-ka-boodle — programming and ads alike — dumbing us down, until we were finally dumb enough to not know it was happening.

Resistance was short lived. All too soon, words like “boob-tube” and “idiot-box” disappeared from descriptions of the television centered life. TV was successful in accentuating the passive/escapist side of people, part and parcel of their consumerist/materialist side, in short a shallow human “thing-oriented” identity, mostly things we don’t need.

There was almost no corrective against this propaganda, except for reading; and lucky me, just in nick of time, I was also becoming a reader in earnest. Clear thinkers had seen this dark potential in humankind long before television. I have already mentioned Jesus, but he lived 2000 years ago, and eternal truths need to be reinvigorated into changing times.

In school books (thank God TV hadn’t found its way into the schools yet) there was Wordsworth, for example, saying in 1807 that “getting and spending we lay waste our lives.” Or a few decades after Wordsworth, there was Emerson saying “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” There were voices out there, more modern than ancient biblical voices, confirming the soul sickness of consumerism — now with its new vehicle, TV.

Without becoming a reader in earnest, I surely would have sunk into the mass consciousness of our times. But I did become a reader, and now I had another problem: how to live as a herd animal who didn’t fit in with the herd. As a reader, it was only a matter of time before I would uncover the rebel Thoreau, who from the very opening pages of Walden struck the right chord in me, in terms of this conundrum of how to live in the world but not be of the world. From the day I read the first chapter, “Economy,” he became my go-to guide on life’s most fundamental questions, and has remained so all my life. Here was a prophet’s voice embellished with wry Yankee humor, crowing like Chanticleer to wake his neighbors up. Or in my case, if I may say so, to keep me from falling into the collective deep sleep.

Thoreau was crowing like Chanticleer to keep himself awake, too. (He now and then tacitly admits as much.) With him showing the way, even though at that time he had lived a hundred plus years before, it was perhaps not too late to resist this rapidly ballooning consumerism/escapism, this buy-now/pay later debt mentality, this boob tube sponsored dream that was winning over America’s soul in leaps and bounds. Thoreau gave me the hope that it was possible to personally stay awake to what was important; to not fritter my life away in trivialities.

Having spent my formative years in the country, I still had a lot in common with the everyday life he lived and observed in the mid-1800’s. Again, in “Economy,” he talks about the “necessaries” that everyone needs to stay alive. We are animal, yes. It’s in our nature to want to stay alive, to survive. But his point is that we don’t have to become slaves to those necessaries.

Keep it simple. The cabin that he built with his own hands in the woods near Walden Pond was a mere ten by fifteen feet. He grew a vegetable garden, and then a bean field for his cash needs. Add in foraging and fishing, which were pleasurable activities, he could provide his material needs by working six weeks a year, the equivalent of one day in seven, thus improving (in his opinion) the biblical injunction to work six days and rest on the seventh.

“Rest” for Thoreau meant being free to retain into adulthood the spirit of a child, to spend his day playfully, creatively, in activities of his own choosing — although he also reminded his readers that when hard work, like hoeing his bean field or building his cabin, was personal and kept to a minimum, it wasn’t drudgery anymore. To the contrary, in the right proportions work was enjoyable, an indispensable part of a good life.

No one has better caught the depth meaning of asceticism, the misunderstanding of which has devolved into self-denial for the sake of self-denial, as if asceticism in and of itself is a spiritual practice. To the contrary, Thoreau practiced simplicity in order to make a life of his own choosing. To be his own master.

Being owned by what you own ends up making a life a pathetic joke. “How many a poor immortal soul,” Thoreau says, “have I met well nigh crushed and smothered under [the load of their possessions], creeping down the road of life, pushing … a barn 75 feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no such inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.”

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau concludes, by the fourth page of Walden. Because you’ve got to get your economy right before anything else can be right.

So, thanks to Christ and then Thoreau (and to the printed word) for helping me resist the ever expanding brainwashing power of modern culture which now so fiercely shapes Americans to think that we are what we own, to believe that the more we have the more we are — not farms anymore, so much, but behold the storage units on the circumferences of almost every town built to contain the excess of “things” now too great to store on one’s property.

Nor do we get out from under that weight of our possessions by becoming a member of the super-rich where we have four or five homes even, and then pay servants to take care of them. In owning more than we need, or that we can take care of personally, lies the beginnings of class, the deepest divide among people, that descends all the way down to animosity (sometimes in the form of envy) and downright hatred.

The battle for authenticity is the deepest human struggle. As a community college teacher. I teach a piece of Walden every semester, and, alarming to say, I find Thoreau more and more dead to my students. Twice a year, I crow like Chanticleer to bring his words to life for them. And to keep them alive in me.

3 Comments

  1. Charles Sullivan

    Thoreau advised us: “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport.” I like the sense of play in that thought. We are a work in progress, unfinished but continually evolving, striving toward self-improvement. I have come to call Thoreau’s way of living performative conscience. I think that mindfulness is a good beginning, one that is lacking in techno-man. It points us in the right direction.

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  2. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

    Thanks, Debbie, for your always thoughtful comments. For or “still trying.” “Mindfulness” is never enough without living our mindfulness in action, I think Thoreau would say. What can we do but keep trying.

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  3. Debbie Thompson

    Keep teaching Thoreau! Thanks to you, his words are alive in me every day, although it’s a constant struggle to live simply. I downsized my home and gave away more than half of my belongings trying to simplify my life and not be a slave to working all the time and acquiring and possessing “things,” but I feel that I haven’t accomplished much. Is just being mindful of that enough? I don’t think it is. I’m still trying.

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