10 Shelter-in-Place Tips from Henry David Thoreau
Timeless ideas from the author of Walden
“Isolation and quarantine help protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease.”
Centers for Disease Control, 2020
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
Henry David Thoreau, 1845
Starting in 1845, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau spent two years living alone in a small cabin of his own making near the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. His most famous work, Walden, is the output of that time.
Many modern critics are quick to point out that Thoreau walked into town frequently and had plenty of visitors, making him less of a “pure” hermit than advertised. I’ve always found that line of criticism curious. If you read Walden, Thoreau never makes claims of becoming a hermit at all. He devotes two full chapters to “Visitors” and another chapter to “The Village”.
Still, Thoreau did spend a lot of time alone from 1845 to 1847 and in Walden, he painstakingly documented every inch of that time.
His work is ultimately an exploration of cultivating a richer inner life during self-imposed solitude.
In a moment when many of our governments are imposing “sheltering in place”, I’ve pulled out some of Henry David’s best insights on thriving in solitude.
1. Embrace the Solitude
In present days, “quarantine” and “solitude” are likely not synonymous. Many of us are learning more about “family closeness” than we have in some time. Still, whether you are alone-alone, or alone-together, spending weeks or months without outside companionship is a challenge.
Thoreau saw loneliness and solitude as two sides of the same coin. Rather than thinking of himself as a single, lonely human, he imagined himself as one solitary part of the interconnected web of life. With this single change in mindset, he celebrated his solitude:
“I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself. I am no more lonely than a single dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a humble-bee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house.”
2. Replace Life of Desperation with Life of Simplicity
Thoreau’s most famous quote comes from Walden:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Before reading Walden, I didn’t realize there was more to the quote (I assumed Thoreau was just having a particularly dark day). As it turns out, the full quote isn’t nihilist at all, it is a call to refocus around a simple life. Here’s a fuller version:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
Thoreau suggests that people are so wrapped up in the details of life (“Our life is frittered away by detail”), that they forgot to focus on the basic wisdom of life.
“When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,- that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime”
In this time of anxiety and uncertainty, it feels like everything is amped up, screeching loud and generally stressful. Thoreau recommends trying to be reductive rather than additive in your life:
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand”
“I am convinced by both faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.”
And how does Thoreau suggest we go about simplifying?
3. Take Pauses Throughout the Day
“I love a broad margin to my life”
In these manic times it is easy to forget to take our foot off the gas from time to time. No matter how intense things are right now, give yourself a break.
The speeding up of society was an issue in Thoreau’s day:
“Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage(coach) office?”
His solution was to take moments out of the day to simply stop and be present:
“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life.”
4. Practice Meditation: Thoreau-style
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in”
If ever there is a time for mindfulness, this is it. Lucky for us, Thoreau was a student of Eastern Philosophy. In Walden, Thoreau suggests a meditation that allows you to momentarily detach from your thoughts:
“By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or in the sky looking down on it.”
5. Limit Your News Intake
More than 150 years ago, Thoreau understood the anxiety that comes from obsessively consuming the news. His solution? Limit or eliminate it from your diet.
“I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, — we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”
6. Read Great Literature
Not surprisingly for a New England Transcendentalist, Thoreau was a voracious reader of the classics. In Walden, he writes an entire chapter extolling the virtues of a good book when you’re cooped up at home:
“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself — not represented on canvas or in marble only, but carved out of the breath of life itself.”
Perhaps take a break from Netflix and crack open a book.
7. Listen to Some Good Music to Soothe the Soul
“John Farmer sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day’s work, his mind still running on his labor more or less…
He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard some one playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood.
Still, he thought of his work.
But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him.
They gently did away with the street, and the village and the state in which he lived.”
8. Spend time Outside with Nature
“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”
For those who can safely (and legally) leave the house, experts continue to suggest spending times outdoors. America’s most famous naturalist would of course wholeheartedly agree. If you can spend time in nature, Thoreau suggests you really pay attention to (or “keep an appointment with”) nature as well:
“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
9. Spend Time Inside with Nature
For those that cannot be out in Nature, Thoreau’s got you covered as well. He found joy in seeing nature through a window:
“See those clouds; how they hang! That’s the greatest thing I have seen to-day. There’s nothing like it in old paintings, nothing like it in foreign lands.”
He found joy hearing nature through the walls:
“Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.”
He even found joy in knowing there was nature out there:
“The snow had already covered the ground since the 25th of November, and surrounded me suddenly with the scenery of winter. I withdrew yet farther into my shell, and endeavored to keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast.”
10. Find your own hope
Ultimately, Thoreau’s message for self-quarantine is a message of self-directed hope. By slowing down and enjoying a simpler life, you can better cope in these unprecedented times:
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal, — that is your success”