College is all about choices.
Unfortunately, the choices we’re tasked with making throughout these four years can often feel overwhelming or daunting in scope. The simple question: “What major should I choose?” naturally encourages the thought: “Which career path should I go down?” which spirals into: “Who do I want to become?” and culminates with the nigh unsolvable philosophical quandary: “What do I hope to get out of life?”
Coming up with the right answers seems to require an almost inhuman amount of foresight for a young adult. Whether we like it or not, college, as the final rung on the educational ladder, is the time in our life that society has designated for us to confront these questions.
Uncoincidentally, it’s also a point where society, with all its constructs and rules, seems to impress itself most heavily onto our choices. Societal opinion leaks into our decision-making process daily. We’re told what we need out of life. We’re told what is respectable and what isn’t. We’re essentially told how we should live, and it’s hard to feel like it’s possible to live any other way.
We may lock ourselves down a pre-med track even if we lack the temperament for it because that’s what mother wants us to do, or that’s what we’re told will make us successful or garner respect.
That’s why it’s especially important now, against a backdrop of increasing social pressure, to step back and read the most anti-society piece of literature ever written: Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”
It exudes such an absurd level of angst that it puts Kurt Cobain’s raspy baritone to shame. In fact, it's essentially Good Charlotte’s classic pop-punk hit “The Anthem” except 300 pages in length and eloquent in prose.
Although Thoreau — a 19th century American Transcendentalist and Romanticist — lived in an age quite unlike ours, his work still holds up in relatability and relevance. Like us, Thoreau reached a point in his life where he was confronted with daunting choices and questions. However, he realized that society was the only thing forcing him to confront those choices in the first place.
Thoreau’s response to this realization was “Walden,” a two-week experiment in which he lived off in the woods. Through his writings, Thoreau offers an incredibly revealing look at society – from the outside perspective in. He puts nearly every social construct under the microscope – even some of our most deeply rooted – tears them apart and flips them on its head.
The rich are poor. The young are wiser than the old. Good is bad.
He observes his fellow townsmen, toiling in their respective occupations, and writes:
“Men labor under a mistake… most men are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them… He has no time to be anything but a machine.”
We’ve chosen to live as society dictates, or as Thoreau puts it, “the common mode of living” because we don’t think that there is any choice left. “Walden” tells us that there is always another choice. It highlights the absurdity of society, putting our own lives into perspective and forcing us to question our own place in the world. In the process, Thoreau calls to mind simple truths, seemingly obvious, but eminently revealing nonetheless.
You might be thinking, "How does living in the woods and sticking the finger to society help me resolve any of the pressing life questions I face as a college student?"
Now, I don’t think everyone should escape their problems and go on a lifelong camping trip in the woods. But I do think that it’s important to mentally detach ourselves from social convention every once in a while, take a deep breath, and begin questioning everything around us. As Thoreau said himself:
“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow…”
In doing so, we can better identify which of our choices are being motivated by public opinion rather than what truly matters—our own personal reflection. Perhaps only then can we make the decisions that are right for us.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”