Life: The Great Experiment


Two hundred years after his birth, when we think of Henry David Thoreau, we think “nature,” and some of us think “social justice.” Yet his defense of both, sprang from the same roots. He found society in nature and he found nature everywhere, especially in the town center and in the human heart. If he were here among us today, I imagine him encouraging us to not accept our lives as given but to experiment, to challenge the conventions we have inherited and to let the radicalness of nature be our guide.

Reading 1: Excerpts from “Henry David Thoreau: A Life”

Thoreau’s eyes rested on the dim blue outline of Wachusett. He even addressed a poem to the mountain—the one Margaret Fuller had so firmly rejected. Today this walk to the mountain with Margaret’s brother would be itself a form of composition, using the approach she had recommended: “nature will not be yours,” she had said,” “until you have been more hers.” “Seek the lotus, and take a draught of rapture.”

That day, Henry came upon a brood of partridge chicks squatting in the leaves. He cradled them in his hand, where they lay unflinching, then set them gently back among the leaves, touched when one accidently fell over and stayed that way. Recording the sighting…Henry struggled to capture why he was so moved: “The innocent yet adult expression of their eyes I shall not soon forget. There was the clarified wisdom and cunning in their clear eyes. When the mind is born then is not the eye born . . .with the sky it reflects.” Henry’s raw and angular handwriting spills down the page inscribing a moment of rapture that would become one of Walden’s most beautiful passages—indeed, a touchstone for Walden itself, as Thoreau took the vulnerable young bird into his hand, and saw the birth of cosmic intelligence…From now on, he vowed, heaven would indeed be under his feet: whenever he gazed on Wachusett on the horizon, his eyes could rest “on the very rocks reminding him that “there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from it.”

Reading 2: Hacking Humans

In his most recent book , Yuval Noah Harari offers 21 lessons for the 21st Century. In the chapter on education, he writes, “So the best advice I can give a fifteen year old stuck in an outdated school somewhere in Mexico, India or Alabama is don’t rely on adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world. In the past, it was relatively safe bet to follow the adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the 21st century is going to be different. Because of the increasing pace of change, you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias.

So on what can you rely instead? Perhaps on technology? That’s an even risker gamble. Technology can help you a lot, but if technology gains too much power over your life, you might become hostage to its agenda. Should you rely on yourself then? That sounds great on Sesame Street or in an old-fashioned Disney movie, but in real life it doesn’t work so well. Even Disney is coming to realize it. Just like the fictional character Riley Anderson in the movie Inside Out, most people barely know themselves and when they try to listen to themselves, they easily become prey to external manipulation. As biotechnology and machine learning improve, it will become easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires, and following your own heart could be dangerous. Will people be able to tell the difference between themselves and the marketing experts?

To succeed at such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard at getting to know your operating system better, to know what you are and what you want from life. This is of course is the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousand of years philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice is never more urgent than in the twenty first century because unlike the day of Lao-Tzu or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu, and the government are all racing to hack you…not your smartphone, not your computer, not your bank account…your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s not even half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans. If you want to retain some control over your personal existence, and the future of life you have to run faster than the algorithms, than amazon, than the government, and get to know yourself before they do. Don’t take much baggage with you; leave all your allusions behind. They are very heavy.” 1

Sermon: Life, The Great Experiment

Who am I? What should I do? What is the meaning of life? Questions we humans have been asking from time immemorial. Harari, in our reading is telling us the answer lies in knowing our organic operating system, an echo of Henry David Thoreau, who said t in 1840:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?2

To make meaning Harari says you need a story that offers at least these two things: a role for you to play, and a story that extends beyond your horizons. I find both in the life of Henry David Thoreau, a life of dedicated experimentation well narrated by his recent biographer, Laura Dassow Walls. I turn to Henry David today, in the year that follows his 200th birthday, to draw upon the wisdom of knowing oneself that he learned in an early era in which the pace of change is similar to the pace we are experiencing today.

Historian Mary Babson Fuhrer who researched the way townships in Worcester county were experiencing the upheaval of the 1830 and 1840s writes “this was an especially anxious decade for the townsfolks; disaffection among the young, discord in the church, economic crisis, divisive reforms, partisan politics and political turmoil left many fearing for the survival of the social order.” She goes on to describe powerful expansions of the market, advances in technology and the rise of national political parties that created unprecedented challenges. Suicide among the young, sparked by the Great Religious Awakening and its focus on sin, was on the rise. Mary White, a matriarch then of neighboring Boylston described the age in her journal as the “wilderness world, where people longed for an abiding place.”3

In those days of change, freedom, historian Fuher writes, was vested in the power to choose how one belongs in the midst of changing relations, when loyalties where shifting from neighbors to networks, from farms to unions, from compulsory to voluntary, from conventional to divergent. I sense that this is true of today, that in the midst of changing relations, youth and adults are longing for the freedom to choose how to belong. I have been in conversation with some of you just retired or contemplating retirement, to know you are seeking a vision of self-value in the midst of great change. And for many youth too, this question of belonging looms large. Today, too many seek the dopamine hit of being seen or liked on Facebook which has, according to psychologist Jean Twenge, tripled the suicide rates in pre- teen girls in five short years . An exploitation of human vulnerability that Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook says was clearly intentional. He writes, “The thought process back then was to consume as much of your conscious attention as possible by creating a social validation feedback loop exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with.” He adds, “God only knows what its doing to children’s brains.” 4

1. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, 2018 p.270

2. Laura Dassow Walls, Thoreau: A Life, 2017 p. 226.

3. Mary Babson Fuhrer, A Crisis of Community, 2014 p. 67 and p. 6

4. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, 2018 p.147-151