Henry David Thoreau has always been one of my very favorite writers. I first picked up a copy of Walden from my grandmother’s private library, (which I’m distinguishing from the public library that she headed in the small town I grew up in), and ever since I’ve been fascinated not only by his wisdom, which carries truth even today when applied to modern circumstances, but also by the actual style of his prose, which is a bit rambling, but still incredibly eloquent.
Thoreau has become famous for being somewhat of a malcontent. Read at face value, his essay Civil Disobedience, (which inspired the movements of Martin Luther King and Ghandi), appears to be nothing more than an indictment of an unjust and unchecked government, and a call to his fellow citizens to stand up in the face of oppression. Certainly King and Ghandi took it that way, and to good effect. I always read a little bit more in to Civil Disobedience though, a thread of thought that is very particular to Thoreau’s entire philosophy.
In a letter to a lifelong correspondent named Harrison Gray Otis Blake, (long names were a thing back then, I suppose), Thoreau made the following memorable, (and often quoted), statement:
Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.
It’s a small part of a larger idea that Thoreau was trying to impart to his friend, and really one facet of his larger philosophy in general. Essentially, he was saying that we can’t allow ourselves to be bowed by rules or customs. We can’t allow our ‘betters’ to define who we are or what we will do. This sense of “I am who and what I am, and I will live and die by my own rules…” is the spirit that sent Thoreau in to the woods for the 2 years that he’d later write about in Walden. It’s the same spirit that he was trying to stir in the public when he wrote Civil Disobedience. He wanted them to understand that they owed more to themselves than they did to their government. In the letter to Blake, he was simply saying, “be who you are, stand by that, damn the rules, and damn the opinion of others”.
It’s a common enough theme and one that’s been repeated many times. I think we’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that we should feel free to be ourselves and hold our opinions and not let others pressure us any other way. But in the quote above, Thoreau finishes with something important. He says, “be good for something”, and in my opinion, that’s his most important point.
What good are our morals or our beliefs if we do nothing with them? If you believe something do something with it. Endlessly talking about something might satisfy our ego or our conscience, but in the end, it’s what we actually do that matters. Unfortunately, while we’re thinking and talking and planning with our morals and convictions and beliefs in hand, I think it’s easy to forget just how hard the doing actually is.
Thoreau believed in the value of working for yourself, in the sense that he felt that it was one pure way of expressing who you were without having to bow to the needs or desires of some other master. You are who you are by what you have done for yourself, in agreement with your own principles, not by what you’ve said. In more modern terms, he believed that anyone could “talk a good game”, but that the real value of a person came from the hard work they’d managed to complete towards their own ends.
I think this message resonates with me so much because it’s so much a part of my personal philosophy. I believe we all come in to the world with something to offer it. We’ve all got a certain amount of potential, (some more than others), and the best way to live life is to apply that potential to our daily lives…to do something with our own quality. If we’re not doing that, then what are we doing? Probably…we are talking. We’re telling anyone who will listen all about what we want or what we think, and about all our grand plans, and we’re never taking a single step towards actually achieving our goals.
Every piece of advice I’ve ever seen written by an author advising others on how to become writers themselves essentially boils down to the same basic idea: If you want to be a writer…write. If you want to be a programmer…write a program. Whatever you want to do, do the work that will make you into what you want to be. Also, understand that the work is often hard. It’s not always fun, it’s not always interesting. Sometimes it’s just work…hell, most of the time, it’s just work. This is the point that I think gets missed more often than not, quite simply because it’s easier to just dream about what we want. Most of the time…it’s just work.
People that succeed do the work. They put aside their lofty ideas and grand plans and they just go get their hands dirty, and they keep their hands dirty until they’re standing where they want to be. They don’t care about what others say, or what others think of them. They don’t care for titles or accolades, and they don’t quit when things get difficult or lose their fun. They are always moving forward…if you’re not moving forward then you might as well not be doing anything at all, but they also understand that sometimes ‘forward’ doesn’t mean the most direct path. They put aside ego and replace it with progress, and they let their results speak much louder than their words ever will.