Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden, is a novel focused completely around the idea of self-reliance. In the novel, Thoreau goes even more in depth into this idea, focusing a passage on the specific idea of experiencing your life solely for yourself, not through the ideas or beliefs of anyone else. He states, “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof”(1616). He fully believes that a person cannot live their life based on hear say. He believes that if you have not seen or experienced something yourself to prove that it is indeed true, you are living your life based on false pretenses missing out on not only some of the greatest aspects of life, but of forming your own self.
Seeing this overpowering influence of the media and others in today’s society on me, as Thoreau would, this is a belief my mother has instilled in me since the day I was born. She has always told me, “If you didn’t see it, hear it, taste it, smell it, or feel it for yourself, then you have no idea if it is true.” Overcoming the large influence of our elders, as well as the media in this generation, means stepping out against the norm and experiencing life on our own terms, in order to learn just how much more the world has to offer than someone else’s beliefs.
Thoreau persuades his readers by providing us with several examples of times he has proven his belief to be true. He uses this example to mock a common belief of his towns people when he states, “What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields” (1616). Thoreau could not have chosen a better way to define other people’s opinions than as a ‘mere smoke of opinion’ because that is exactly what it is.
There is clearly no such thing as a fertilizing rain, but if Thoreau did not have the untrustworthy stance he had, he would have believed this fantasy just as everyone else did. Everyone in life, especially our elders, is going to have a different opinion on just about everything there is to have an opinion on. However, what they say to be true from their time may not be true today. Thoreau provides us with the example of the elders of his time not being smart enough to find fuel, while fuel had already become the largest source of heat for his time because someone decided to go against the norm and try it (1616). Therefore this was once again a statement easily proven false with a little effort.
In Thoreau’s passage, it is nearly impossible to ignore his brute stance on only trusting your own experiences and opinions over any one else’s. He gives an even better example why he believes this so passionately when he states,
“One farmer says to me, ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with;’ and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw materials of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.” (1616).
In this quote, Thoreau even uses a sense of humor effectively proving his point, as well as showing his readers it is not just elders that are not to be trusted, it is everyone. He is clearly mocking this man, for the man blatantly contradicts himself by not even realizing the animal he is using for such hard labor, survives off of nothing but vegetables. Thoreau proves the valuable point; how can a person trust what people tell them when it is this easily proven wrong? He wants us to see this is only a few of the many things that others could swear to be true, only to be proved false by a little thought from a different perspective or experience.
Reading this passage and seeing Thoreau’s passionate belief has brought many prevalent concerns about today’s society to mind. Being influenced by what others tell you to be true, based of off their beliefs, is still as big of an issue today as Thoreau believed it to be in this passage. There is not one person alive, whether it was in ancient history or today, that has not been persuaded in some way to follow a certain crowd or believe a certain thing just because it is the popular belief or simply what that individual believes to be true. Not only one of the greatest influences, but at times one of the greatest issues on society, will always be the media.
All it takes is one meager talk show host to make a statement, whether about a celebrity, government official, or religion, for the entire world to believe it to be true, proof or no proof. It is a shame how many magazines or television shows support their business by selling magazines or episodes implying or hinting at something to be true even if it isn’t. A prime example of this is the US Weekly, People, Ok!, Cosmopolitan, etc. magazines, that exists solely based on gossip and popular trends, yet this is what most of the world, especially young adults, choose to read for entertainment or advise.
The phrase, ‘All it takes is one rumor, true or not’ is prevalent now more than ever. People today do not take the time Thoreau is saying is necessary to find out if something is really true or not. A lot of the time, they simply just do not even care. That one rumor is all they need to hear for it to spread like wildfire. Not only can this ruin the victim of the rumors life, it alters the way the believers look at life. How are people supposed to think for themselves and develop their own identity when the world is telling them exactly whom they should be and what they should believe, no questions asked?
All it takes is a little courage and a small amount of time to go against the norm to see if something is true in your opinion or just in everyone else’s. As Thoreau says, “What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can” (1616). In his time, there was no overpowering media as there is today so I am referring to his “old people” as our media today and I know from many experiences, in the grand scheme of things, it is completely worth it to find out that you can.
In conclusion, Thoreau’s unwavering outlook on the need to prove what others have to say to be true before blindly trusting them is still very necessary today, if not more. There are going to be times when listening to others is the better judgment, especially in the case of safety, however, relying solely on others to tell you how to live your life or view others based on ‘gossip’ is a different story. If you constantly follow what others tell you to do and not to do, you will never develop your own sense of the world and the people in it through your own mistakes and perspective. You will merely be walking through life in someone else’s shoes.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden.” _The Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1_. Ed. George McMichael. 10th ed. New York: Pearson, 2011. 1193-1310. Print.