I was then living in the poorest white neighborhood in the country, the Old Colony housing projects of South Boston. The most (in)famous person in our neighborhood was Irish mafia boss and serial murderer Whitey Bulger, who was known for dismembering the bodies of "snitches." I'd spent much of my youth crossing over to the other side of the street to avoid trouble or to keep from bumping into people involved in Bulger's notorious criminal enterprise.
My mom, who had grown up on a farm in County Galway, Ireland and who, like so many immigrants then and now, often worked 2 or 3 jobs simultaneously, would always give me the same advice: "Don't take anyone else's money, no matter how much they offer or what they ask you to do." I turned down various offers for making money, from standing lookout, to counting money, to rolling joints.
Reading became my refuge, an escape into a saner world where people didn't mysteriously go missing after they'd been foolish enough (or innocent enough) to call the police. It would be years before we understood what horrible things had been done to some of those poor, missing people -- it's hard sometimes to even think about it.
Right from the first page, "Walden" opened my eyes to a new world. Living in the housing projects, living a life of avoidance, I had no connection to nature at all. It was from reading "Walden" that I first tested the idea that nature could help restore me. It was Thoreau's profound connection to nature, his long walks near Walden Pond interrupted by stops to watch birds or pick berries, that struck me as an example I could follow. "An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day," wrote Thoreau, and I began to walk whenever I could, especially in green spaces or near the ocean.
Walking in nature became a self-therapy that I continue to practice today. I can still recall a gorgeous August evening in my late twenties, when I went night-swimming at Walden pond with a group of friends. Bobbing up and down in the cool water, chatting with a friend who'd grown up in Romania, as a half-dozen other friends surrounded us, I stared up at the stars. In this symphony of night and stars, immersed in Walden Pond and surrounded by friends, I felt a moment of supreme peace that I wanted to hold onto for the rest of my life. It was fleeting, yet unforgettable. Thoreau often writes about "the soul," and I understood at that moment what he meant -- life could be beautiful, transcendent, filled with wonder and surprises.
But it wasn't just Thoreau's love of nature that connected with me -- it was his advocacy of conscience above power, or laws, or anything else the world expected. Thoreau was someone who lived from the inside-out, setting his own standards of what was right and wrong. His famous "Essay on Civil Disobedience" was written because he refused to pay taxes to a federal government that supported slavery. Indeed, Thoreau remains a great exemplar of civil disobedience, championing conscience over external controls. He was protesting then, in the 1840s and 1850s, and he'd be protesting now.
Thoreau said it was okay to set your own course in life, to be yourself and, as he famously put it, "to march to the beat of a different drummer." It took me decades to gain the courage to actually try doing this, but Thoreau planted that seed -- and it's grown stronger over time.
Thoreau was a seeker, someone who sought to understand the meaning of life. He inspired the 17-year old me to imagine that I could do the same. It was Thoreau who led me to study Buddhism and Hinduism in college. He expanded my horizons toward India and China and Japan, forced me to look inside for truth and guidance and beauty. This caused me pain as well, because so much of what's within us is scarred, which is why so many people avoid self-reflection. But that process, one of going through the pain rather than around it, made me stronger. As Hemingway once wrote, "we're all broken, but some of us are strongest in the broken places." Compassion is there, for ourselves and rippling out to others too.
I didn't realize at 17 how much I would struggle with the legacy of my childhood. Because of where I grew up, I was often closed and guarded well into my adult life, but I always wanted to find a way to open up. The things I needed to do to protect myself as a child would become walls that I needed to take down over time. You can't live your life crossing the street, unless it's to meet a friend. Finding ways to connect weren't easy then or now.
Thoreau gave me my first example of how to be open and fully human, but I was lucky enough to have family and friends who helped me along the way.
"What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us," wrote Thoreau. I've spent much of my life getting to the truth of that wisdom. Thoreau never looked externally for validation, for ideas about how to live a good life. He believed we need to build strength from the inside out. And only we can be the judge of ourselves.
He asked big questions, which forced me to ask big question. What do I want to do? Why do I want to do those things? How do I become comfortable with myself and my place in the world? Voltaire once said that we should judge people not by the answers they give but by the quality of their questions. Nobody had better questions than Thoreau. But finding answers (for all of us) can take a lifetime. "Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked," Thoreau advised, "which you can walk with love and reverence." Yes, but how do we find what we love and revere? It takes a lifetime. Curiosity. Learning. Sharing. Self-Awareness. It was Thoreau who helped set me on the path I've followed since I read "Walden."
What also struck me about "Walden" was how skeptical Thoreau was about the idea of progress. He didn't believe that the railroad or the telegraph, the Internet and Smartphone of his day, would make us any better. So many times, when I'd go on job interviews in my 20s, putting on a new dress shirt and tie, I'd think of Thoreau's admonition to "beware any endeavor that required new clothing." The line made me laugh but scared me too, forcing me to ask if I was being true to myself. Then I'd laugh again -- I needed to make money like everyone else. I'd then imagine Henry rolling his eyes at me. I couldn't build a cabin and grow beans by the water, I'd tell myself (and him). Or could I? Thoreau inspired me, challenged me, scared the hell out of me, forced me to think deeper than I wanted to about the soul.
I often write about technology for my clients. And every time I explain how much "added value" and "business growth" the latest technology will provide to organizations and individuals, I'm haunted by Henry. "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas," he sagely wrote, "but it may be that Maine and Texas have nothing important to communicate." We have a million new social media channels but very little new worth sharing.
I have always admired Thoreau's courage, his willingness to do what he believed was right despite its unpopularity, his constant championing of our deep connection to nature and the human soul. "Walden" hit me like a ton of bricks when I was 17-years-old, and it still sustains and challenges me every day. I see Henry as a friend who never stops asking me to be better, to be true to myself and others. Walden Pond remains a baptismal place for me.