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People Are Good

What I learned and unlearned from Henry David Thoreau

Published on:
November 23, 2016
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4 min.
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In college, there were few books I revered more than Thoreau’s Walden. I was raised a good Bible-believing evangelical, so I suppose the Bible ranked higher in holiness, but in the amount of time spent reading, Walden was the victor. 

Part of the reason Walden was so attractive to me and that I devoured it over and over again was the retreat mentality Thoreau lived by. In the book I found a man so plagued and disgusted by life, by people even, that he went into the woods because he wanted to live a more deliberate life—what most people today would call “living intentionally.”

Henry David Thoreau

That appealed to me not only for the terms he used, but because in his whole “going into the woods to suck the marrow out of life” thing, he was also going to search for truth. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” This phrase was underlined, starred, circled, bracketed, and highlighted more than any other sentence in any book I had ever read. I quoted it to people constantly, idiotically. 

On top of my yearning for truth, my introverted tendencies were becoming so severe that I was willing to drop it all to go hike the AT, or find a cabin in the middle of the Adirondacks, or move into the wild of Alaska and really live, you know? Annie Dillard and Cheryl Strayed only fueled the fire.

I don’t exactly know why I wanted to retreat from society. I was late on a few technological gadgets which inevitably made me an outsider—a role I embraced. That outsider role then meshed with a Luddite role I took on in college when I deleted my Facebook—you know, to really live, to stop living my life through a screen and taste what the world was really like. 

These two titles people gave me—outsider and Luddite—were titles I became. In grad school I was known as the hermit, the guy who wanted to just read a book, be alone, walk into the woods, and never be seen again. 

Yet a friend of mine, who prodigiously and constantly made fun of me for my ideals, one day sent me a GQ profile about the North Pond Hermit—a legend in the northern woods of Maine.

In the profile, a hermit, Christopher Knight, was caught stealing food from a local camp. Chris, a man who had been living in the Maine woods and had not seen or said a word to a single person in twenty years except for one small “hello” to a local hiker, was being kept in prison for all the misdemeanors he had accumulated over the years. Misdemeanors which were almost solely theft. Theft to survive. 

I devoured the profile, the whole time thinking how very much like Thoreau this man was, how very much I wanted to live a life like that. Apparently the interviewer, Michael Finkel, had thought the same, as he mentioned Thoreau. Yet Chris dismissed him, and me, with one small word: dilettante. 


I didn’t know the word, but I knew what it meant—even before I had looked it up. My longing to go into the woods, which was probably more of a desire to be known, a desire for popularity, was snapped like an uncooked strand of angel hair pasta. What was I, a dilettante to a dilettante?

I could hear myself rethinking the line, the quote I had loved so much, and how fickle it all sounded. My real desire to go into the woods was a cowardly one and the more I thought it over the more I realized that everything Thoreau was doing in the woods was selfish, rooted in the fact that he thought he was better than everyone else, smarter, a real source of truth. All Thoreau had to do was eliminate the stupidity from his life and all the people who were holding him back—which amounted to the population of the world, sans Emerson. 

As I looked back on my life during my Thoreau obsession I realized that this was people’s perception of me. I looked like a self-obsessed, self-sufficient asshole—a name that I have heard people call Thoreau time after time. I revered, as Kathryn Schulz says, “a man whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.”

People are capable of incredible things when they work together.
Jonathan Minnema

What I really didn’t know was that I was missing out on was how cool people really were, how incredible it can be to collaborate with someone on some piece of art, or a story, or just a conversation. I realized only a week after I had abandoned Thoreau to his pond that people are capable of incredible things when they work together. Although it sounds like one of those cheap motivational posters with skydivers all holding hands in a circle as they pass through a cloud, it’s true. 

In a class I took on church history I realized, too, that this has been what the church has believed and taught all the time. Monks who went into the desert to live by themselves were the ones chided as foolish. Real monks were not those who retreated from society, but those who embraced it and wanted to live more deeply devoted to community. True monks were those monks who lived together, not alone. I finally realized, after years of revering Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Cheryl Strayed, that, although they were brilliant, they were wrong.

It’s something I need to keep reminding myself every day as I am still snapping out of it: people are good, people are good.

Cover image by Sašo Tušar.

Jonathan Minnema
Jonathan is the video producer for Fathom Magazine. You can reach him at jon@fathommag.com and @jonminnema.

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