I first read Walden as a college freshman in the late 1990s. The ideals of Thoreau have been some of my guiding lights ever since; I have a ceramic bust of him in my bedroom. These days, I see his words most often as nuggets in carefully chosen fonts, superimposed over nature scenes in places far from Concord, Massachusetts, scrolling past my half-vacant eyes for two seconds here, three there, on the screen of my smartphone at night.
Recently, my husband and I decided to cast off our stable but unsatisfying suburban life and start over. We wanted to live by the ocean, and not in a cul-de-sac. I wanted to get back to writing. He quickly found a job in his chosen field, in which he is deeply experienced. I quit mine with nothing to turn to. We sold our house, found an apartment, paid movers. It cost thousands of dollars. We had worked hard to save that money, and spending it was terrifying. But it was there to spend.
We are far from wealthy, and we were taking risks—or at least it felt that way. In reality, if we failed, we would feel ashamed, disappointed, sad, but we would have relatives to take us in, credit cards to cover our expenses. So we went confidently in the direction of our dreams. We were proud of ourselves, I think rightfully, for having the bravery to do all this. But there was an enormous amount of privilege required to live the life we’d imagined.
Of course joy cannot be purchased, and comes from within, and often those with the least are most able to appreciate life’s fundamental blessings. But picking up and moving to a new town, a new environment, a new life requires external resources. Money. For a security deposit, COBRA insurance, internet access. Time. To fill out address changes, search for new schools if you have children, go on interviews. Time when there may not be income. Time and money that we all know many people do not now and will never have. What then? Have we accepted that in America only the middle and upper classes should be able to change their lives?
Our political rhetoric certainly has not. Little beyond the word “bootstraps” need be said to affirm as much or tell us how long this attitude has existed. But as we all know, this is “spin.” Phrases designed at best to sell legislation and win votes, at worst to distract us while policies that harm the average person are enacted yet again. To overturn the caste system of modern America, real action by our elected leaders will be essential.
But we cannot afford to wait. We. No one is living a fully enriched life when anyone is shut out of its opportunities, and if we wait for a brand-new system to float down out of the sky, those of us who can spare the time will likely grow old and die waiting, while those who cannot will continue to suffer real economic, social, and emotional harm. Ask the victims of Hurricane Katrina. And who do we suppose will invent this product—and how many of us think we would be happy with the result?
So we—the people—must be the ones to begin. But how?
I am not an economic scholar, and I do not pretend the solutions are simple. No individual can single-handedly upend a centuries-old system saturated with complexities and flaws. But every one of us—rich, poor, middle-class, female or male, white, black—every American—can look at it. Recognize our current place in it. Acknowledge it exists. Henry David Thoreau was Harvard educated; women did his laundry while he lived alone in the woods. At the same time, commendably, he used his station in society to argue for the abolition of slavery, to publicly question and criticize his government. Cesar Chavez started from no such station when he raised his voice for workers’ rights. Perhaps the most insidious fraud of the power elite has been to convince the masses that things are already just fine—we have equality because this is America (the speeches rarely delve beyond such platitudes)—but here is who you should blame for whatever makes you unhappy; here is who you should focus your anger upon, just in case.
We know better. Where things stand right now is what we have to start from. Right now, many of us hit “share,” and the ten people who already agree with our opinions hit “like” in return. Then we go to sleep. Instead, we can pay attention to the issues that aren’t so sexy—the ones that truly need our attention rarely are. Campaign finance reform. Google “corporate tax subsidies” and see what you can learn. Maybe you’ll think they’re a good idea, and maybe you won’t. Put aside the notions served to us about Eric Garner or Sandra Bland and read a little about what they were like when they were alive. Read from a few sources about Christopher Columbus, and see if you discover anything you weren’t taught in school. Read a whole article, and not just the header and subhead that fit with the posted link. If you are stirred beyond reading, attend a City Council meeting. Contact your Congresswoman about a socioeconomic issue. Join a protest.
There is a place for every one of us in the struggle for justice and peace, whether your contribution is large or small, an outward act or a simple shift in awareness. If enough people do it, we’ll be able to start having different conversations, and not just with those same ten people. No matter how divided we may feel, we can always come together again. And the scales can start to tip in the direction of egalitarian harmony. For all his human failings, that is what Thoreau wanted most. And it is within our reach.
Photo by Ryan McGuire