Friday, November 12, 2010

Icons of Courage: Henry David Thoreau

I admire Thoreau dutifully. He is an American icon who influenced Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. He inspired the less well-known Chris McCandless to march to the beat of his own drum with words such as these: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. McCandless, like the English Romantics and Thoreau at Walden, believed a man might be whole and fulfilled if he were fully open to Nature. As Thoreau said, 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 was also a nay-sayer. He refused to continue as a teacher because the superintendent advised him to whip the children more often. He protested the government’s use of his tax money and spent a night in jail. He left off reading newspapers because each day’s edition repeated the news from the previous day: somewhere one human preyed upon another, machines failed to function, and fire or wind or water destroyed man’s best efforts to thwart those forces. He saw no point in reading the same tales over and over.

Indeed, Thoreau thought the best reading is the sort that one puts aside, having gleaned its lesson, in order to act as that lesson directs. Two principal lessons that Thoreau gleaned and imparted include:

o If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. Men will believe what they see.
o If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law
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With each of these, Thoreau advocates for action, in particular for acting disobediently. A man must live what he believes, and he must dare to break unjust laws.

Thus, Thoreau may be characterized as the philosophical father of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Leymah Gbowee, each of whom had the courage to be what Thoreau referred to as “finishers.”

All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one... characteristic we must possess if we are to face the future as finishers.

Can we find the courage to finish in the name of justice?