One of the most famous quotes in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden comes in the concluding chapter, when Thoreau is explaining why he left his cabin in the woods. Giving fodder to high school yearbook quotes for centuries, Thoreau begins his famous paragraph by writing: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” And then he ends with the classic: “I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.”
What a stirring and inspiring quote! When I first read Walden, as a teenager just graduated from high school, this was THE quote for me. I highlighted it with three brackets (in pen!), wrote “Wow!” in the margins, and copied it out again on the back of the front cover.
And yet, as the years have gone by, I have found that the true inspiration for me is in the middle of that paragraph, between the first and last lines. Within this paragraph, Thoreau talks about how easily we fall into the same daily routines, both in our actions and in our mindsets. He writes: “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.” Thoreau explains how within a week, he had worn a path from his cabin doorway to Walden Pond, and how that path remains six years later, perhaps guiding other footsteps in the same route.
Thoreau then takes the example of this path from his door to the pond and pivots to a much larger idea, writing: “The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” These are the words right before the famous, “I did not wish to take a cabin passage…” and they pack a serious punch.
It is so easy for us to fall into the same routines, think the same thoughts, do the same activities, and live the same lives. It’s easy and it’s comfortable. Change is difficult for everyone, especially if you appreciate your life and the people and experiences within it. But it is so good for us, so healthy, to push ourselves to try new things, live in new ways, and learn and grow. Every day gives us a chance to be intentional about the pathways we are trodding. Here’s to making new pathways!