“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
How rare is the poetic or divine life today? It’s hard to say. In talking to people, there is a distinct lack of engagement in the workforce. A lack of inspiration for putting yourself into things, no passion for the work, a going through of the motions that must be reconciled. If one in a hundred million souls were sparked by the poetic or divine in Thoreau’s time, I wonder what the ratio is now?
Do we linger in a post-pandemic stupor? Is it a generational change as the kids raised with iPhones and social media and gaming become the primary fuel that powers economic and cultural life? Is it older generations, churned and manipulated, poked and prodded, finally having enough? Is it the relentlessly obvious climate change impacting everything while seemingly nothing is done about it? It makes you want to sail away sometimes, especially when you see how much fun those who did are having. But there’s inspired work to be done still, and clearly a need for more of us to lift others.
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake. We each have purpose in this lifetime that must be fulfilled. To do otherwise is to live in quiet desperation, as Henry would point out. But how do we keep ourselves awake in such a noisy, conflicted and demanding world? He showed the way, didn’t he? Walk away from the noise, find a quiet place to contemplate your place in the world and pay attention to what happens to you. He didn’t travel very far himself (his friends would take the short walk to visit him, and he them). Mostly, solitude is turning off the electronic babysitter and the insistent chatter of the uninspired and listening to yourself. Writing it all down surely helps.
Thoreau has always been my grounding rod. When I become disenchanted or feel that quiet desperation stirring inside or have simply had enough of the loud talkers in my world I return to Thoreau’s work, or visit his grave, or take a pilgrimage to Walden. He remains a voice of reason in an unreasonable world, speaking universal truths like so many time travelers. Their spark forever awake, forever informing, forever a beacon to light the way even as their physical selves forever rest.
From where do we derive hope and an infinite expectation of the dawn? Answers are inclined to find us. Don’t let its whisper be drowned out in the noise.