|Henry David Thoreau|
As I have written on this blog and elsewhere, I grew up as an outlier in the Jewish community. As a [then undiagnosed] person on the autism spectrum, I was always a loner who preferred being in nature to being with people. When, in high school (during the early 1960s), we read Thoreau's Walden as part of the curriculum, a whole new world opened up for me. Here was a rugged individualist much like myself, who "marched to a different drummer" and found joy in the beauty of the natural world. He also understood solitude. "What sort of space is that," Thoreau asked, "which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another." Well said! Reading Thoreau made it OK to be different.
|Walden Pond, Massachussetts, in 2010|
(Photo by Ekhabishek, courtesy of Wikimedia)
Appended to my copy of Walden was Thoreau's famous essay, "Civil Disobedience." That laid the groundwork for my involvement in the anti-war movement. In the fall of 1966, I went to college and jumped head first into political activism. The local YMCA had a basement coffeehouse, where I read my protest poetry, listened to local folksingers, and met interesting people from across the country. I missed out on Woodstock, but did ride a bus to Washington D.C., where I held hands and sang "give peace a chance" with a quarter of a million flower children. Those were idealistic times, when we all believed that a new age of peace and love was just around the corner. Although it has been a struggle sometimes to keep my idealism, I have never given up hope for a better world. To this day, I remain a peacemonger and a pacifist.
Thoreau was primarily a writer, not an activist per se, but that one night of protest he spent in jail -- and what he wrote about it -- eventually sparked a whole resistance movement that continues today. Single acts of heroism have a way of reverberating down through the years. Who knows what the ripple effect will be, and how many lives will eventually be touched, through one person's willingness to break ranks and heed the voice of conscience? And would you be willing to do it?
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December 30, 2014: I recently ran across this interesting article, Torah and Thoreau, by Joseph Bornstein, who describes it as his "enthralling discovery that Henry David Thoreau’s ideas have their roots in Jewish consciousness." Thoreau was not Jewish, of course. He was a Transcendentalist. But Bornstein does provide a lot of parallels between Thoreau's life and philosophy and Jewish thought. A good read.