Lessons From Thoreau: Reflection, Integrity, Civil Disobedience

"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."

Thoreau wrote these words more than 150 years ago after spending more than two years in a small cabin he built by Walden Pond.

What can a simple yet extraordinarily deep man from more than a century ago teach us about our times and us today? Much, it seems to me, after spending time walking in those same woods by Walden last week.

The 1840s was a time of tremendous technological, industrial and communications change (the telegraph was just invented and trains were beginning to spread across the land), immigration was emerging as a major issue (i.e., the Irish were coming here in huge numbers because of the Potato famine) and race concerns were a huge discussion (slavery), libertarianism was rising as a movement, great economic disturbances and income inequality was present, and nature and the environment were on many people's minds.

Sounds very familiar, doesn't it? Thoreau's answer to this was very direct. Wander off and get in touch with what mattered - in himself and in the country. To find out what was truly essential and what really mattered deep down. Nearly all of Thoreau's brilliant writings and lectures came from time he spent in nature and by himself most of his days.

Let's examine five key points in which what Thoreau thought about and wrote of might point the way for us today.

Reflection and solitude. Thoreau believed, as well as most spiritual leaders and thinkers throughout history, that we needed times in our lives to pause and be alone and reflect on the various ebbs and flows within us and in the world. Hurrying about wasn't going to find us the answers. Today with cell phones, computers and cable TV, thousands of communications interrupt us every day, distracting and detaching us from our hearts and souls. And in the midst of the long Congressional recess, I am hoping that instead of hurrying around their states and districts, leaders might take some time to be alone and have some heartfelt reflection. Maybe they can come up with better answers and a better way to converse with each other. Maybe they can examine their own prejudices and stubborn judgments that get in the way of a path forward.

Simplicity. This was a major tenet of Thoreau's and it is also embodied in the above point on reflection. We often lead such complicated lives filled with so many possessions or the desire for possessions that it carries our hearts away from the essential values in life. Thoreau didn't argue for poverty, but he did argue for a much simpler way of life. And by doing so, in the end we would discover we would be much happier. Retail therapy never really works for anyone in the long run. And maybe the answer isn't for us to figure out how to make more money, but how we can live with less. How we can be less attached to "things" in our daily lives, and more connected to fundamental values and to each other.

Integrity. In the midst today of all the scandals going on in politics about the loss of character and men behaving badly, in sports of cheating and self-absorption, and the loss of faith and trust in nearly every institution in our country simultaneously (corporate, government, political), maybe it is time to focus on conscience and living a life immersed in integrity. We constantly look around for others to build new institutions, and Thoreau would say to start with ourselves in the manner with which we live. And to ask our leaders to do the same. We should spend more time on rebuilding trust than time we now spend on coming up with great programs and policies.

Local matters. Thoreau believed that change really begins in our communities and neighborhoods, not in some far-off capital. That if we really want to improve the country we each have to start locally. This is why today there is such a rise of social entrepreneurs and service organizations focused locally on helping one person, one family, and one neighborhood at a time. I am proud today to be the father of a son who served in the Army for five years and now works in a charter school in the projects in Brooklyn, N.Y., and another son who just started work in Miami for CityYear. These are the ways real change will sweep our country.

Civil Disobedience. So many leaders in the last few generations from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela have relied on Thoreau's thoughts on the idea that sometimes breaking an unjust law may be the only way to highlight injustice. And whether you agree or disagree with them, this is exactly the path Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning were following in the disruption they caused. As I have written before, Thoreau understood that civil disobedience was a journey to give power back to the individual and that the small acts of a few people can actually move things forward, even in the face of huge organizations and forces we seem to not control.

Thoreau wrote long ago, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Today many men and women feel lost, desperate, and in dire need of a new kind of politics and living, and a song to sing. Maybe through following some tenets written in the woods long ago, and rediscovering our essential values and nature, we can write our own lyrics and find that song for our nation and ourselves. To find a new way, and as Thoreau wrote, "Only the day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."