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Turn Life Into Your Own Quest

by Charles Creekmore

Henry David Thoreau was not only ahead of his time, but ahead of ours.

Little did we know! What Thoreau proposed in Walden when it was published in 1854 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.

Thoreau’s model of self-reliance, natural living, courage, integrity, non-materialism, and simplification is even more illuminating now than it was then.

As a matter of fact, Walden contains a secret message sent here from the 19th century to transform each and every one of us. We are each capable of turning life into our own personal quest. We can each go back to Walden and reshape Thoreau’s experience into our own unique mission.

Thoreau's method 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. Challenge the status quo. Shun materialism and luxury. Meditate. And, faced with any problem, gauge fact or fiction with your own inner "realometer," as he dubbed intuition.

If we do all this, each in our own singular way, we’ll be saved from the tender trap of the American Dream. And, boy, Howdy, do we ever need it!

Don’t look now, but at some point while the U.S. was flexing its muscles as the richest and most powerful nation on earth, the American Dream morphed into the American Nightmare. You know the list, summarized in our Declaration of Independence as “the pursuit of happiness.” The birthright of every American is wealth, fame, glory, possessions, status, and any other dreams we have our hearts set on bagging.

Now the American Dream is broken, turning into the most destructive fantasy in our society today. Just ask the silent majority of disillusioned Americans living “lives of quiet desperation,” a timeless phrase coined by Thoreau in 1845.

Our lives in America prove that we’re looking for bliss in all the wrong places. By the time we’ve reached a certain age, we’ve already put the pedal to the metal and roared down all the roads to happiness as mapped out by the American Dream.

We’ve groped through our first backseat sex as teens. We’ve overindulged in romance and committed serial matrimony. We’ve trampled down a career path or three. Taken a couple of wild shots at fame and fortune. Thrown back a few drinks for the road. Experimented with drugs. Mortgaged our future. Traveled hither and yon. Entertained ourselves in every way laptops can boot up or credit cards charge.

In other words, we’ve bungled headlong into the tender trap. What the American Dream drums into our heads with commercials and ads, with Hollywood films, with TV shows, with expectations from family and friends, is that we are all entitled.

Everybody deserves to be an American Idol. Anyone can grow up to be president. Each ghetto kid can play professional basketball. The beat goes on. The American Dream urges us to go astray into visions of the fantastic, of the impossible, of boundless prospects every day of our lives.

And what do we have to show for it? Fleeting gratification. Acute anxiety. Passing fancies. Lingering disappointments and frustrations. Moments of pure ecstasy. Long periods of total numbness. Most of all, we have gnawing questions about the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, or the GPS coordinates of the soul after death. Adulthood means navigating an endless maze of digital forms online. Old age adds up to an unsolicited AARP subscription and a vague sense of discontent, confusion, or emptiness.

For the bulk of our people, the American Dream is just a Loch Ness Monster, a Sasquatch, a blob of dancing swamp gas, a Northwest Passage; something mythical and unreachable, which will bring only frustration, pain, unhappiness, discontent, and an abiding sense of failure.

Actually, Thoreau told us exactly how to waken from our bad dream in Walden. His wake-up call, largely ignored by mainstream Americans while pounding their snooze buttons, is simplicity itself.

His secret solution? Turn life into your own vision quest.

Thoreau went down to Walden Pond with the purposefulness of a mission, a calling, a cause célèbre. His was much the same passion that elevated Gandhi’s peaceful freedom movement, Mother Teresa’s saintly deeds, Martin Luther King’s dream, Einstein’s science, or Emily Dickinson’s poetry to the level of holy vocations.

The concluding chapter of Walden was Thoreau’s trumpet call to everyone: “I learned this much, 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.”

What Thoreau meant in this quote was “success” on our own terms, not those prostituted by the American Dream. Here was the most significant revelation expressed by Thoreau. By living with the kind of bravery, simplicity, decency, spirituality, kindness, curiosity, and awareness practiced by Thoreau at Walden Pond, each of us can make his or her own life into a noble experiment, much like Walden.

The road not taken, the path less traveled, is exactly what Thoreau himself would have advocated for your journey, mapped out by your own distinct dreams, compassions, talents, and intuitions.

“I desire that there be as many different persons in the world as possible,” Thoreau vowed, “but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”

Thoreau’s vision was a cure-all for the American Nightmare, a metaphysical crusade against the deeply shallow materialism that has triggered our national despair! Be spiritual, be simple, be a rugged individualist.

So blaze your own trail by traveling the Henry David Thoroughfare, then take the noble path less traveled. From there, all roads lead back to Walden.


Charles Creekmore’s electronic book, Back to Walden, is posted complete and free of charge 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, Light of Consciousness, Vision, and many other periodicals.

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