A Short-lived Frontal Lobotomy

Chapter 2, Part 5

Now we see how the American Dream has mutated into the American Nightmare.

Faced with a dead end on the street where the American Dream lives, many citizens spend their days, instead, chasing after distraction. They feverishly search for happiness in TVs, computers, cell phones, multiplex theaters, I-pods, SUVs, BlackBerries. You can see them driving past as they text-message, tune their radios, and check their OnStar directions. Quietude has become passé. Peace of mind has dissolved into mindless noise. In effect, they regard happiness as any thingamabob that can perform a short-lived frontal lobotomy.

A Man Texting While Driving

We have become the tools of our tools

Indeed, Thoreau is turning over in his grave while I type these sentences. As he protested, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

Thoreau’s solution for the distractions of an over-indulgent culture? “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

In other words, 86 on the American Dream.

And what, you might well ask, have I got to offer you in place of the American Dream? The answer is as simple and sublime as its roots: Go Back to Walden.

Your guide is Henry David Thoreau, the undisputed wild man of 19th-century literature. He was “out there” in 1845, just as he is “out there” now. Since the 1840s, his unorthodox ideas, which left the most brilliant intellectuals of his day scratching their heads, have quietly shaken the foundation of Western thought.

His philosophy of civil disobedience and peaceful revolt profoundly influenced Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. His beliefs were embraced by George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White, William Butler Yeats, Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, Edward Abbey, Sinclair Lewis, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Burroughs, John Muir, B.F. Skinner, and Loren Eiseley, among many others. He was one of the first conservationists. Many credit Thoreau with starting the environmental movement. He was an early advocate of preserving wildlife refuges. His life is a role model for the anti-war movement, tax resistance, conscientious objection, and civil rights. He was a staunch abolitionist and among the earliest advocates of Darwinism. He studied Buddhism and Hinduism a century before they came into vogue in the West. He was a beatnik a hundred years before beats found their beat, and a hippie many decades before hip went hip. Moreover, his keen observations on the over-development, over-indulgence, and over-civilization of modern society have proven as prophetic as they are wise.

And yet, to my mind, Thoreau’s most lasting gift is his simple but robust method for dealing with a world gone postal. Read on to make his method your own.