Isolation as a Tool for Self-improvement in Walden by Henry David Thoreau

May 1, 2021 by Essay Writer

Isolation: Knowledge of Oneself Beyond What Society Could Ever Teach

Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” announces that Thoreau spent two years in Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, living a simple life supported by no one. The episode was both experimental and temporary. A way in which Thoreau was able to observe his own surroundings all while analyzing society. It was how he was able to learn more about himself by separating himself from his usual space. Throughout this paper, I will support Thoreau’s experiment and argue that through isolation, one is able to gain knowledge of who they are and how they think in a way that society could never teach.

Henry David Thoreau challenges his readers to go back to nature and to remember that the simplicities in life are what make it whole. I found this experiment to be thought-provoking and brave. Thoreau’s concept of “necessities” struck me right away: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel are the basic gifts that nature itself can provide. The way I see it, this idea of minimalism could be and should be applied to the modern era. Today’s society is filled with anxiety over mass consumption, always wanting more of what we don’t “need” in the first place. Once a person removes himself/herself from their environment will they be able to analyze the pros and cons of their given situation. I can relate to Thoreau in this way. I appreciated Thoreau’s notion that “it is never too late to give up our prejudices.” (Thoreau, 5) He challenges people to have an open mind and to live life differently than they had been before. I think if we as a people conducted more “experiments” in our own life by changing out behaviors, everyday routines, and weighed the pros and cons of that change, we would be better off. In our society today, people are so stuck in their ways, they think they know anything and everything. This cloud’s the mind’s progression so we become stagnant.

Thoreau confirms my previous thoughts on isolation when he states that he has to abandon “the world”, including human society, in order to discover himself.

Not till we are completely lost, or turned round- for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost- do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as be awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

If one goes beyond themselves and their daily activities in their surrounding environment, they will soon enough find who they are. This can only be done by removal. Thoreau states that people more often than not people unconsciously go through their lives guided by routine. He says that once one breaks that, he/she will be able to clearly see their rut. Also, by removing oneself from society, will they be able to appreciate what extends their bubble. Nature extends the everyday human societal bubble. Nature is the leading catalyst for change. A person will be stuck until they surrender their initial perspective and change their guiding lens and lose themselves fully. Once a person loses themselves fully, they will be able to see what their reality is and alter their routine to eventually change who they are. Humans don’t appreciate the “vastness and strangeness” of nature due to the fact that they don’t allow themselves to get lost in the first place.

Thoreau makes the claim that when we allow ourselves to separate from society and normal environments and get lost in another world, we will be able to see where we are, who we are, and where we are going. Isolation is the way in which humans reflect on their past and the decisions they have made. Isolation may scare some, but experiencing total silence and disconnecting completely from any form of “normalcy” provides peace and relaxation. Distractions throughout our days can be addicting. Humans find themselves at a point of being so busy and stressed that they can’t think straight or control their emotions. Embracing solitude is an essential way to critically think and make decisions that will have an effect on the present. One must figure out where to have this period of isolation and take full advantage of it. I think the reason why people don’t view isolation as a positive experience is due to society’s skewed perception of it. It has been considered an inconvenience, something to avoid, a punishment, a realm of loners. I think humans view it as damaging because most don’t like to be alone. However, isolation, when pursued by choice, can be therapeutic. In other words, when people remove themselves from their social context of their lives, they are able to see how they’re shaped by that context. Alone time should not be something that one is afraid of. I won’t doubt that it takes work before it turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does it becomes the most important relationship, the relationship you have with yourself. By having a relationship with yourself, you are able to learn what you appreciate and what you don’t. You will be able to get in touch with your emotions, what you are and are not sensitive to. This important relationship will also benefit your relationships with others.

Markus Poetzch’s article “Sounding Walden Pond: The Depths and “Double Shadows” of Thoreau’s Autobiographical Symbol”, argues that Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” serves as an autobiographical symbol and a polysemic text that emphasizes the quest for self discovery and pilgrimage. The pond becomes a “reflection of spiritual birth and ethical reform.”(Poetzsch, 387) According to Poetzsch, the pond functions as a “guide or prophet, eternally reflecting (on) the sidereal hemisphere, and subjectively like a conscience, a pure distillation of law.”(387) He argues that for Thoreau, the pond is more than a mirror of the physical world but in fact an intimate pool of thought in which he realizes who he is within the greater realm of nature and his society surrounding the natural environment:

Under these terms, the pond represents more than a mirror of the physical world; it is an inner pool of thought, an element of mental topography in which the author’s self is realized and reified. Walden as text thus becomes a travelogue of Thoreau himself, something like a collection of snapshots in which his hair or fingers constantly start, across the lens, or perhaps, a portrait in which he captures himself holding the camera above the glassy rim of water.(388-398)

Poetzsch feels that Thoreau’s pond is more than a reflection of the world around Thoreau, but it is how Thoreau can further see himself as an extension of the outside world. He states that Thoreau can learn who he is within the greater realm of society outside of nature, basically, who Thoreau really is and how the world around him influences his thoughts. The pond serves as a symbol for self reflection instead of the physical world’s reflection. Thoreau is able to capture who he is, instead of focusing on society. It is a personal experience that Thoreau has to endure alone in order to examine his inner thoughts and inner soul. Poetzsch has come to a smart and well thought out conclusion of the pond. It is interesting to observe how the physical world can impact one’s thoughts and inner self. The case made allows the reader to critique their own world and who they are within their own surrounding environment. If more people created a space of isolation: taking a trip, taking a walk, or simply closing one’s bedroom door, a brand new perspective will become apparent. This is due to one’s heightened awareness of the self because there are no “outside” distractions. Humans must find their own “pond” in order to grow and change the shape of who they are and how they allow their minds to wander and shift the perception of their life. By doing this, one may offer a skewed view of the world and through conversation of their findings, possibly add a solution to change. A change that will better overall society. A change in oneself, will help others question their own beliefs, experiences, and thought process. It’s an ongoing manipulation of who one is, who they want to be, and who they will become. Isolation is the leading force behind change.

Thoreau’s pond is a mirror for himself and through isolation he is able to process his own critical self-discovery. Markus Poetzsch describes Walden Pond as a “bottomless symbol precisely because it subverts the truth of a single perspective in a single moment in time.”(396) It’s because of the pond’s “transparency and purity”(397) that it presents itself to be bottomless and it enables a reversal of perspective. This is a key element in which Thoreau is able to notice a shift in his beliefs but this does not promote anxiety, instead, it’s a calming force that brings clarity. The pond teaches Thoreau to examine the world and realize that one’s experiences are subjective. They are relative to each individual’s current situation. Poetzsch says that without the pond, Thoreau would be unable to come to such realizations, “the pond always maintains the self in the intermediate position between heaven and earth. This allows Thoreau not only to find himself but also to recognize himself in relation to others.”(398) The realization of where he is, what is above and below him, both humbles Thoreau and consoles. “It’s permanence, depth, unsullied purity, and sensitivity on the slightest movement upon its surface enable the reflection of any life, any subject.”(399) I have come to the conclusion that without the pond, Thoreau would not be able to reflect on his choices that have led up to his time at Walden. It is a vital part of the self discovery process. It makes clear what is necessary and what is not. The pond promotes a simplistic and minimal lifestyle without the clutter that society brings. The pond does not mirror societal pressure and promotes inner peace because of the realizations it makes clear.

Thoreau states that he enjoys and embraces his alone time, he describes it as a “wholesome” experience. “

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. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between man and his fellows. (Solitude)

This passage from the section titled, Solitude it describes the difference between loneliness by choice and loneliness when surrounded by others. Thoreau states that even when we are with others, we are still alone. The company of others promotes anxious thoughts and worries. Thoreau says he loves to be alone because isolation is his best companion. When people go out into society they feel more alone than when they are inside by themselves. Solitude is encouraged by Thoreau due to the fact that it allows a person to think. The ability to think without the persuasion of other’s thoughts. When one is alone, they don’t need to think about pleasing others or worrying what other’s will think of them. The individual needs alone time because it is the time in which one can become best friends with themselves. Humans need to re-learn how to be isolated. The need to remind ourselves that a time existed before instant communication and interaction with others. Humans need to spend time alone to center themselves and regain a grasp on the importance of life before they can dive back into society. Thoreau encourages readers to find a sanctuary. To catch a breath and find a tranquil space to allow one’s mind to roam. I agree that there is a big difference in being alone and being lonely. I acknowledge that Thoreau is simply alone. He enjoys his time spent contemplating everything in the universe. It is also evident that Thoreau makes a claim that solitude is more of a state of mind than an actual physical circumstance. Solitude means that one empties the “busy work” in order to confront the reality of the world. One can only achieve such an altered perspective through separation from external, societal pressure.

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