"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Renewing Aurora-worship

Lately I have felt extravagantly, guiltily lazy. This morning I arose from my bed at 11:15. I wasted time on the internet. I did listen to a fairly interesting philosophical podcast, but I also idled away with alarmingly mindless facebook-ing.

I often find it difficult to become energized over the summer for what appear to be essentially existential problems.
I could go and read a book. I could stare at the wall for hours. I could go for a run. I could stare emptily at a screen.
Who cares? (No one.) What difference does it make? (None at all.)

This bothers me.

I hate mindlessness, idleness, purposelessness.
It’s the accusation I can never rid myself of. I don’t know how to pinpoint flaws; there’s nothing wrong… but nothing that’s quite right, either. There’s not much of anything, really.

I want very badly to do something. I crave purpose and passion. I have a passion for passion, but lack the substance at which to direct this energy. I am sorely in need of a mission.

It can be difficult for me to make the connection between my day’s decision (Do I read? Do I sketch? Do I… do nothing?) and the advancement of some worthy cause. It seems clear that it is preferable to embark on some task of self-improvement than to engage in obviously useless activities…
But why is this preferable? What assumptions are at hand? My behavior seems to suggest that my body contests assumptions which my mind is eager to promote.

It bothers me to feel overtaken by lethargy when I know that the pursuit of ideas is noble and exciting. Reading a book is a wonderful thing! Okay, maybe the production of this sketch is not particularly important, but cultivating a skill is a wonderful thing, and this is a step in that process. My life feels narrow and inconsequential, and yet I persist in believing that the individual is important!

How do I reconcile this? How do I “feel” better, when I “know” better? How do I convince myself that my decisions are consequential, when, at the moment, they seem so unbearably trivial?

I think this is part of the reason I am so enthralled by Walden. “Economy” and “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” are spectacular. Particularly the sections on Aurora*. Thoreau’s writing teems with infectious vigor, and I can always count on certain passages of Walden to inspire me to look beyond the seeming smallness of my life and to strive to take charge of my existence.

Yes, I am incredibly small. But I am neither wholly powerless nor meaningless.

Perhaps it’s not immediately apparent that my decisions carry weight. But choosing to create meaning in my life is remarkably powerful. Even if it’s just reading a book rather than thoughtlessly scrolling down a page- I will respect myself more for that decision, and if I respect myself I may trust myself to do important work for others. I may come across powerful ideas. I may gain valuable knowledge about myself and others. I may set myself on a path filled with strange wonders.
And that can, indeed, make all the difference.
*What follows is almost certainly the most inspiration-dense text I have ever come across, straight from “Where I lived and what I lived for,” Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. For me, reading this is to fall in love anew:

I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of King Tching-thang to this effect: "Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again." I can understand that. Morning brings back the heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint burn of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sailing with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer's requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world. The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air- to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light. That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way. After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his Genius tries again what noble life it can make. All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, "All intelligences awake with the morning." Poetry and art, and the faire stand most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."


  1. This was a great post, Annette. Ohhh Walden, I shall have to revisit you. I liked that you quoted everything but bolded what you found to be key points. I always like seeing what different people found significant from various things, you know?

    This topic is definitely something that has plagued me, but I think of it in a bit of a different light. If your entire existence was centered around ballroom, for example, you *could* practice every hour of every day. However, you'd go insane. You need a "rest," if you will. Instead, you learn to allot times for practice and learn to really utilize that time, which I find much more fulfilling that if I practice for 12 hours a day. I think it's a bit too idealistic to think that you can make productive, mind-nurturing, significant decisions every moment of every day. Instead, you need to allot time for both mind-resting activities and mind-nurturing activities. Basically, it's not a bad thing to be idle if it helps refresh you to do productive, consequential things later on. Just my two cents. :]

    Also, I liked the Frost reference at the end ;]

  2. I greatly encourage you to revisit Walden! Or at the very least those first two chapters. The rest of the book is rather different. Much calmer.. there are some great moments though. Fishing at night... growing beans... walking along a railway... Thoreau's way of looking at nature (and life) is wonderfully fresh and philosophical.

    I think you make a good point in addressing the need for mind-resting in addition to mind-nurturing. In this very passage Thoreau refers to the importance of night and slumber. It is certainly important to recharge, to be able to meet the dawn with vigor.
    I think the key is to rest when rest is needed, and to be awake when you claim to be awake. There's a sense of deliberation, I think.

    Thanks for the feedback! :]