Thoreau and the Spiritual Myth of Isolation

I, like many who attended American high school, remember reading and learning about Henry David Thoreau. A naturalist who eschewed society, he is especially known for his famous book Walden. Thoreau lived in a simple cabin on Walden Pond for 2 years, only ate beans, and spent his time alone in nature, writing about his experience.

Thoreau, in essence, sounds like the perfect minimalist. And yes, he seems to have a (very extreme) simple lifestyle completely figured out. But Thoreau’s lifestyle is not all that it seems.

Thoreau’s Actual Lifestyle

In fact, Thoreau did not live the way he wrote about in those two years. Yes, he lived in a cabin at the pond and ate beans, and I’m sure he did have some alone time in nature. But the truth is that his cabin accommodations were much less isolated, and he spent way more time with others eating way more types of food, than his writings suggest.

In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal. He made that walk several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends. These facts he glosses over in “Walden,” despite detailing with otherwise skinflint precision his eating habits and expenditures. He also fails to mention weekly visits from his mother and sisters (who brought along more undocumented food) and downplays the fact that he routinely hosted other guests as well—sometimes as many as thirty at a time. This is the situation Thoreau summed up by saying, “For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. . . . At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man.”

Kathryn Schultz, “The Moral Judgements of Henry David Thoreau”

So basically, despite his writings on the subjects of solitude and simplicity, his life was much more “normal” than he made it out to be. He spent time with people, both at his family’s home (which was only about a mile away) and at his cabin (which was in a busy tourist area). He regularly received visits from family members and others. He was often delivered food by his mother and sisters, and it’s rumored that his mom even did his laundry for him while we was at the cabin.

It’s easy to romanticize solitude in nature when all your needs are taken care of, and you’re interacting with people regularly!

Thoreau’s duplicitous lifestyle has been hilariously depicted in the Apple+ show Dickinson (Season 1, Episode 4, “Alone, I Cannot Be”). Emily, who is a big fan of Walden and Thoreau, travels with a friend to visit Thoreau’s cabin. They see hordes of people at the pond, and realize that his cabin is much less isolated than he let on in his writing. His mother takes them to his cabin, where she receives his dirty laundry for washing. Then, his sister arrives with cookies, explaining that she and his family only live a short walk away. When in conversation with Thoreau, they discover that he is a selfish, self-centered man who only cares about himself and his needs. The visit dashes Emily’s romanticized views of Thoreau and his solitary life in nature– and when they angrily go to leave, Thoreau shouts out “Never meet your heroes!”

Though it’s done for comedic effect, and in real life Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau probably never met, the Thoreau shown in Dickinson is closer to reality than Walden ever was. The reality is that Thoreau lived a life that was both simple and still made allowances for social interaction and enjoyment– a much more well-rounded life, and one that is in more alignment with Jesus’ minimalist lifestyle.

We can learn three major things about spirituality and community from Thoreau, despite himself:

1) Spiritual solitude is not the same as misanthropic isolation.

In Walden, Thoreau famously writes:

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Thoreau’s idea of alone-ness, then, is more about not being frustrated by others than it is about spending time alone and in nature for edification.

Spiritual solitude is very different– Jesus was known for regularly spending time alone to pray:

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles.

Luke 6:12-13

Jesus knew to spend time alone with God in prayer, but then also knew when to act on God’s direction that he received in prayer by calling his disciples and being in community. When, as Christian minimalists, we aim to pare down our schedule so that we have dedicated time to pray, we are intentionally setting aside time to cultivate our relationship with God and grow spiritually.

Spiritual solitude is not isolating oneself because people constantly frustrate us. It is about spending time with God and going more deeply into our spiritual life, so that we can better hear God’s voice and fulfill God’s calling for us, which is often about using our spiritual gifts in community.

2) A simple lifestyle does not mean being alone and without love.

Thoreau would like us to think that in order to live simply, we must be alone most of the time. In Walden, Thoreau writes:

“Rather than love, rather than money, than fame, give me truth.”

Yet, as we discovered before, Thoreau’s life was not actually devoid of love. He spent lots of time with family and friends during his two years at Walden Pond. (One can also question his eschewing of money and fame, since his family was well-off and he was famous– but that’s another point for another time.)

Jesus, on the other hand, tells us about the importance of love:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:34-35

Because Jesus first loves us, we are able to love one other. Thoreau would like us to believe that we have to reject love in order to live a simple life. But even he knew that was wrong– and Jesus reminds us of our need for God’s love and love for one another.

3) We were made by God to be in and enjoy community.

Thoreau constantly romanticizes a solitary lifestyle in his writing, yet he sought out community regularly. He discovered what God has already told us– we are created to be in community and enjoy one another’s presence (and honestly, most people aren’t built to live in a cabin alone without human interaction).

When God created Adam, God realized that he needed companionship: “It is not good for man to be alone” God declared, and created Eve so that Adam has someone to share life’s experiences with (Genesis 2:18). We are built to be together in the Body of Christ, with our spiritual gifts and skills complementing one another (1 Corinthians 12).

Jesus also tells us that he is present when we are in community:

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Matthew 18:20

And Psalm 133 describes the importance of community beautifully:

How very good and pleasant it is
    when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
    life forevermore.

Psalm 133:1-3

Thoreau’s rejection of people and community in his writings are proven wrong both by his own lifestyle and in God’s teachings for us. We were made to spend time in community as well as in alone time; we can spend time alone in prayer, and also with others.

We were created by God to both spend time alone with God, as well as experience God with others. Christian minimalism is about finding the balance between spiritual solitude and experiencing God within community.

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About 
Becca Ehrlich, AKA The Christian Minimalist, is striving to be a Christian minimalist in a consumer society. She currently lives in Upstate New York with her husband Will. You can read more about her story and how her blog came to exist by clicking the website link above.

1 Comment

  1. Amber

    February 28, 2022 - 10:44 am
    Reply

    Wow! I really love this one ❤️

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