“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.
I thought of these words as I was playing tourist one summer in my hometown near the shores of Lake Michigan. On a guided ride through the massive sand dunes of Silver Lake, we stopped at the highest point of the dunes. With lines he’d been using for years, our guide offered a few statistics as he pointed out the scenes around us. From the hill we could see Lake Michigan, a historic lighthouse, and the endless shifting dunes that slowly engulf the small forests around them. Most of his words were lost in the beauty of the scene itself, but I tuned in as he described the survival tactics of the trees beside us. “These trees,” he said, pointing to trees that were no more than 10 feet high, “are upwards of 35 feet tall.” They are trees assailed each year by shifting sands and changing hillsides. When their branches are enveloped by sand, leaves die from lack of sunlight, but the branches become roots.
I don’t know why Thoreau’s words hit me at that moment as I took in the clever tactics of a handful of scrappy trees. I was impressed with their display of life, their fight to survive in a world that kept smothering them year after year. Perhaps it was their quiet perseverance in shifting darkness that drew a sharp contrast to my own behavior in stifling moments. Looking out from that which overwhelms me, I am easily resigned to a world without light.
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau left his pencil-manufacturing business and moved to the woods of Massachusetts. Walden is the lyrical record of the 26 months he spent in withdrawal from society in a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond. Written 150 years ago, many of his words still meet us as he hoped them to: like a “chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, to wake my neighbors up.” One of Thoreau’s concerns was that the world was being dulled by the bombardment of an unending flow of news, and a fascination with trivial events. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas” he wrote, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”(1)
Standing atop the mountains of the information age, it doesn’t take much to see the relevance of this concern. Turning on the news each day or jumping on the Internet for the headlines, a task I do faithfully, I am ashamed at how easily I am taken in by stories that are less “news” and more gossip. But then, even the stories that are certainly newsworthy can all too easily become a weight that buries me in fear, or engulfs me in concern that, though real, is riddled with the possibility that I will miss the point. Though neither Thoreau nor I would contend that news consumption is bad, information abounds in overwhelming degrees. Each fact, each story, owns the potential to move our emotions like sand dunes, cutting us off from hope and light.
We live in a world of shifting ideas where the potential to resign ourselves to fear or hopelessness is real. The Christian story counters this imagination with a different one: The light of Christ is not overcome, no matter how dark the darkness. In Psalm 1 we are reminded that the one whose certainty is the Lord, whose hope is in God’s unchanging presence, is blessed. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” In this changing culture of disheartening headlines and distracting information, many lead lives of quiet desperation. Still many others grow roots where life buries branches, tapping into the living waters of one who does not change.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1854), 84.