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Excerpt From "Back to Walden"

by Charles Creekmore

Chapter 2, Part 4 of Back to Walden

Foiled by the American Dream

What the American Dream drums into our heads with commercials and advertisements, with Hollywood movies, with supermarket tabloids, with newspapers and magazines, with the expectations built into us by family and peers, is that we are all entitled. The birthright of every American, judging by the messages fed to us in the media every day, is apparently wealth, fame, glory, possessions, good looks, status, and whatever other dreams we have our hearts set on bagging.

You know the list, all summed up in our Constitution as “the pursuit of happiness.” Everybody deserves to be an American Idol. Anyone can grow up to be president. Every ghetto kid can play professional basketball.

The American Dream encourages us to stray into the realm of the fantastic, of the impossible, of boundless possibilities every day of our lives.

The opposite but corresponding delusion is that everyone who doesn’t live up to the American Dream, by definition, is a failure. If we can’t somehow claim our American birthright, it is only because we lack enough talent, enough motivation, enough perseverance, enough creativity, enough chutzpah to get there. In America, there is no such thing as defeat with honor.

Thoreau prophesized the dangers of the American Dream more than 165 years ago in Walden. “His position is really very simple,” wrote American Studies Professor Jonathan Levin of Fordham University in his introduction for a 2003 Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Walden. “Americans are suffering a kind of moral and spiritual depression, brought on by new and increasingly pervasive social and economic conditions that undermine individuals’ sense of material and moral agency…The early chapters of Walden are filled with examples of how men and women are driven by trivial social expectations, and how these ultimately leave them alienated from their surroundings. The movement to Walden was intended to ‘simplify’ Thoreau’s living conditions and so to free him from all such externally imposed designs and expectations.”

Thoreau concluded, as Levin noted, “that sometimes individuals need to position themselves on the margins of social institutions in order to promote their transformation.”

What Thoreau proposed in Walden was nothing short of a Thoreau-ly radical social revolution, perhaps the only kind that can change America for the better; a revolution of rugged individualists, united by their idiosyncrasy, each marching to a different drummer.

The overwhelming majority of people chasing the American Dream never stop to think that the whole concept is based on an ego trip. It demands a bottomless cup of self-absorption. The truth about the American Dream sounds almost anti-American: Anything you ever do for selfish reasons always proves untrue to your self; while anything you ever do for selfless reasons always proves true to your self. The logic behind this self-effacing paradox is self-perpetuating.

Thoreau’s solution for the pitfalls of an over-indulgent culture? “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

In other words, 86 on the American Dream. And what, you might well ask, have I got to offer you in place of the American Dream? The answer is as simple and sublime as its roots: Go Back To Walden.

Your guide is Henry David Thoreau, the undisputed wild man of 19th-century literature. He was “out there” in 1845, just as he is “out there” now. Since the 1840s, his unorthodox ideas, which left the most brilliant intellectuals of his day scratching their heads, have quietly shaken the foundation of Western thought.

His philosophy of civil disobedience and peaceful revolt profoundly influenced Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. His beliefs were embraced by George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White, William Butler Yeats, Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, Edward Abbey, Sinclair Lewis, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Burroughs, John Muir, B.F. Skinner, and Loren Eiseley, among many others.

He was one of the first conservationists. Many credit Thoreau with starting the environmental movement. He was an early advocate of preserving wildlife refuges. His life is a role model for the anti-war movement, tax resistance, conscientious objection, and civil rights. He was a staunch abolitionist and among the earliest advocates of Darwinism. He studied Buddhism and Hinduism a century before they came into vogue in the West. He was a beatnik a hundred years before beats found their beat, and a hippie many decades before hip went hip. Moreover, his keen observations on the over-development, over-indulgence, and over-civilization of modern society have proven as prophetic as they are wise.

And yet, to my mind, Thoreau’s most lasting gift is his simple but robust method for dealing with a world gone postal. Thoreau’s method for treating our “lives of quiet desperation” is even more fundamentally sound than the tight little cabin he built on Walden Pond. Live simply and wisely. Seek your muse in nature. Lead a mindful life. Regenerate your soul with spiritual energy. Reduce existence to its basics. Challenge the status quo. Shun materialism and luxury. Raise your consciousness with every thought you make. Meditate. And, faced with any problem, gauge fact or fiction with your own inner “Realometer,” as he characterized intuition.

Read on to make his method your own: Thoreau’s Method for the Madness of the World.

This is an excerpt from Charles Creekmore’s free electronic book, Back to Walden, posted on http://www.backtowalden.com/. In 2003, the American Diabetes Association published his spiritual self-help book Zen and the Art of Diabetes Maintenance. He has written for the New York Times Syndicate, Psychology Today, Travel & Leisure, National Wildlife, Islands, Runner’s World, AARP, New Spirit Journal, Spirit of Change, Light of Consciousness, Vision, and many other periodicals
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