Henry David Thoreau cheated. And while, like so many other wayward youth, I too dove headfirst into Walden and its mystical idealism, age has brought with it a more complete understanding of that book.
Despite the beautiful portrait that Thoreau paints, the reality is that Walden pond was only a few kilometers (within easy walking distance) from a relatively established town; hardly the pure nature that Thoreau depicted with such Platonic zeal. Thoreau himself was heir to a quite substantial fortune from his parents, a privilege he never relinquished even as he shed the other material and monetary bonds of society. In the end, the rejection of established norms and the quiet rebellion that is the heart and soul of Walden is only skin deep and for me at least, it has been hard to read Walden the same ever since I began to understand the context of the book as well as the true disposition of its author.
Still, Walden is a defining book of the transcendentalist movement (in the end I think that I prefer Emerson more anyway), a movement that in itself represents a deep yearning for authenticity and youthful angst that comes with its lack. It crystallizes a phase that I believe most thoughtful people go through at some point in their lives, although they may all encounter and experience it somewhat differently. But the failure for most people is that it never amounts to more than just that: a phase. Perhaps we are all caught up in the same web as Thoreau, with all the idealism and desire to taste a true reality, but too mired in the vines of society so that it is ultimately impossible to completely untangle oneself. We feel that urge, that primal instinct to flee our social captivity, but we are capable of only words, however eloquent, and pipe-dreams, however bold, and weak alcohol-induced tirades against something that most of us will never truly be able to escape, even momentarily. Maybe the fact is that most of us are actually too afraid to let go of that lifeline even though at times it feels more like a noose. In that way, we are all Thoreau. He is the archetype of privilege.
And make no mistake, such a rejection of society can only come from someone who is in a position to reject such things. Put another way, you can only dispossess what you already possess; if you are hoping to shed the artificiality of material things, it is cause you are blessed enough to have them in the first place. There is hardly such existential crises among those struggling to survive; it may exist, but its manifestation is completely different as a result of the basic material conditions. The transcendental experience is coupled with privilege, some might even say it is a product of such privilege, and its fundamental meaning is derived in relation to privilege itself.
Allow me a brief caveat: I am not using the word “privilege” in a negative sense, although there are many other academic usages in which it is certainly not invoked positively. Privilege, in the sense I am trying to use it (and forgive me if I am not doing so faithfully), is only the relative material comfort that some of use are lucky enough to have. Having such privilege does not make one inherently bad or ungrateful—though it most certainly can—but it is a position in life that many people (the majority of people in the world, as it were) do not have. As a typical middle class American citizen, I am privileged with the means to a good home, enough food to eat, I am a member of a relatively functioning and uncorrupted state with my rights and freedoms guaranteed. Many people in the world can only dream of such privilege.
So what is the point of the transcendental experience? If those who of us who encounter that same calling as Thoreau are just privileged citizens of decent societies, is our existential yearning just nothing more than spiritual self-indulgence? No. Or not necessarily, at least that's what I think.
To me, the undercurrent of transcendentalism is a turning inwards towards the self, towards a deeper spiritual understanding of one's soul through nature and solitude (hence, the emphasis on the rejection of society). For all of us, those of relative privilege or otherwise, such a journey is probably as essential to personal happiness as food is to the body. But for those of us who find that such an authentic experience is possible only by first turning away from privilege (people such as myself), I believe that we must also carry with us an extra responsibility along the way: the expectation of reciprocity.
Allow me to explain using myself as an example. A lot of my Peace Corps experience so far has been spent alone, in a personal solitude where I have had the opportunity (i.e. little distractions and few other options) to cultivate myself and invest in my own personal and spiritual well-being. Sure, I have done development work and contributed innumerable hours of my life to helping people in my community, but 2 years is a long time and there have been many, many hours spent alone. Such is the nature of the Peace Corps.
When I was younger, I used to have a goal of going off into the woods and living alone for some time to accomplish the same thing—my own little Walden-type experience. Now, I am quite satisfied that Peace Corps has provided me with more than enough of that sort of “turning inwards” if you will. At times, I feel guilty for spending such time on myself, especially as I am living in a situation where I am surrounded by such blatant, abject need. The reality that I have come to accept is that there is only so much I can do to address the problems in this community, many of them are systemic and quite beyond my capacity to influence as a Peace Corps volunteer. At the same time, I have come to realize that such time of personal growth is, in some ways, just as necessary as is my development work.
The fulfillment of this process, the true realization of the transcendental experience, does not come simply from the “turning inward” but instead, once this phase is complete, an eventual turning outward as well. To a certain extent, society can be, maybe even must be, rejected at some point by those of us from privilege called to experience life in its raw authenticity—let's call this the spiritual baggage of the modern man in a consumerist world. But unless we eventually apply the deeper personal understanding towards alleviating the material need and spiritual lack in the rest of the world, we will have walked a selfish path and committed the great treason that is taking our privilege for granted.
The Buddha, after achieving pure enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, did not choose to live out the rest of his days in spiritual solitude, though he would have most certainly been at peace had he chose to do so. Instead, he acted as a mentor to others, using his profound spiritual experience to give back to the world. In that simple choice, he defined the nature of Buddhism; to this day, compassion, through spiritual and material means, is a cornerstone of the Buddhist faith.
I don't mean to say that we are all Buddha (although Buddhists would say just that), but the message is the same. We are all lost and wandering souls in a great, big, chaotic world—spirituality (and I am specifically saying 'spirituality' instead of religion) it is implicit upon the human condition. Our personal experiences with that spirituality may take many forms, go by many names, or perhaps even be entirely unnamed and indescribable, but at their core, they all derives from the same place.
For me, as a child of privilege, the transcendentalist experience is what called to me most, what first caught my mind and captivated my imagination. After years of my own small and quiet rebellions against society, my many moments and hours of personally-reflective solitude, I honestly hope that I have begun the process of sharing part of myself with the rest of the world. I don't believe that the cycle of turning inwards and outwards with ever stop—it is a process that will likely continue until the day I die. But with every turn of that wheel, may it take me one step closer to being that much more at harmony with myself and that much more selfless towards the world.