I'll probably go to Mount Auburn Cemetery instead. Damn you Thoreau... didn't you have accessibility in mind when you picked out the location in which to live more deliberately?
Sometimes I make myself smile.
NO, Katie, he did not have accessibility in mind. Because that was the whole POINT. To be away from people. To be by himself. And then I remembered why Thoreau would sometimes frustrate me when we were reading Walden in high school. So moralistic, so excessively self-reflective that it can begin to feel like reading a 14-year-old's diary. Yes, I too would do whatever I wanted if I had a rich aunt to bail me out of jail, if I had nobody who depended upon me. Some people have SPOUSES or CHILDREN. Some people feel personal RESPONSIBILITY toward others, not just general responsibility to their private idea of virtue and justice. I read this stranger's blog yesterday morning about why s/he HATES Thoreau, and while I don't necessarily relate to the whole thing, it was the last sentence that really resonated.
The things I hate about Thoreau are the things that remind me of myself. What I cannot be, or more accurately, what I am not but would like to be.
I hate how we as a nation laud Henry David Threau and others for choosing self, personal virtue, over localized community. How the utmost of romantic ideals is to cut oneself off from neighbors almost entirely so that you can have what you want. MY house on a quiet dead-end street. MY plot of land with tidy green grass. MY car. MY profits. All monuments to ME.
And I might hate that because, well, focusing on me, the newt, is the one of things which terrifies me the most.
This tension... this tension within which I find myself caught almost every day... when faced with a broken world, with repeated daily actions that can begin to feel so meaningless, with countless “time-saving” strategies that only serve to consume our awareness and distract us from the important things, with beautiful damaged people all around who will make your heart ache because you cannot do anything... when faced with all of this, and an internal thirst for meaning, what is a person to do? Do you soothe, buoy up, listen to the heartaches, and care for the tiny cares of individual souls or do you break free from this humdrum, often unjust, existence for something more simple, or maybe more meaningful or virtuous?
I think of how we hold up Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many other people who dedicated their lives to great and noble causes to benefit humankind. Yet their families paid a tremendous price. And that brings up the question, was that price too high for such widespread benefit to humanity? I am torn. I personally would lean toward yes, but I know a lot of people would say no.
Are we responsible to the individuals in our immediate communities first or to our personal ideals of virtue? Or is it not an either-or question? Is it possible to find the balance between on the one hand accepting both the joy and wonder AND the brokenness and sorrow of the world and on the other hand being your own person, fighting to change what is around you?
That is what bothers me, because I cannot pull myself away, I cannot forget it all and go live on my own. And I think sometimes you desperately need that. Sometimes you HAVE to say “no you know what fuck you all I'm building a 10' x 15' hut in the woods so I can watch the skaters and water-bugs and make my own dungarees.” At least metaphorically. Because I suspect that you cannot make dungarees for someone else if you can't even make them for yourself (hee hee... dungarees). And sometimes those you love ARE unjust and to stand by and do nothing would be to commit a sin against yourself, against them, and against something greater perhaps.
I am so tremendously good at letting things happen. Or so I like to think. But actually if you don't know how to be your own person, if you fear it, then you're not really LETTING anything happen. It is just happening.
At the other extreme, if you try too hard, nothing will ever change.
It goes back to a metaphor that came to me awhile ago of the balm and the flame. The balm... it just forms on the inner cavern of my soul, (this will sound gross but it's the best analogy I could come up with) like the uterine lining. It just forms there and I can scoop it out to share with those in pain around me or to use for creative expression. The flame, however... that is the one I cannot control. The flame burns low and quiet inside of me, so small, that I can't even always be certain it is still going. But then occasionally I will find it between my palms, grown to the size of a grapefruit, spitting sparks and light in a wild rage and I will have to hold it away from my body. When I find I have taken it out, it is too hot to hold, and I drop it... or I end up burning other people because I do not know how to apply it with any level of precision. It seems to be all or nothing. I either put everything I have into the task or the bare minimum. I know, however, that if I can learn to harness this power, I will be pretty much unstoppable.
My primary focus, the element I find myself most comfortable with is the balm. Hmmmm this idea is a little tricky to get across... Letting things happen, that is a function of the balm. It responds to others, and it serves as a creative force outside of other influences. Pure creativity and pure emotional reaction, that is the balm. It feels the joy and the sorrow of others and it is the medium of new ideas and new life. But it really can only echo things that already exist.
Being my own person... that is a function of the flame. In the presence of others who would use the balm excessively so that it would not be able to regenerate. The flame, when used correctly, is what says “no, that is enough.” I need to be capable of gently and carefully exerting the force of the flame, an action to preserve myself and to stand up when things are unjust. This action, if I could develop the capability of performing it in a somewhat reliable manner, would, I suspect, serve to help regenerate the balm.
So that is the balm and flame metaphor. The first startling realization I had yesterday morning on the trolley is that to “love myself” means to know the proper application of balm and flame in the universe. It is being capable of saying I need you to back off; I need to regenerate, or you are being unjust, or any other number of things. Secondly, you might make the mistake to think that the balm is equivalent to “loving others” but it is not true. It is only a partial love. Without knowledge of how to control the flame, it is only a partial love. Therefore, for me, and possibly for everyone, loving myself is synonymous with loving others.
From a 14-year-old's diary:
How marvelous! How simple semantically! How difficult to implement, practically. And I am going to learn how to make dungarees.