Near the end of Walden, (Life in the Woods), transcendental writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau advises readers to believe “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” As the world wraps up another calendar year, amidst a pandemic approaching its second year of disruption, we will all again take stock of our lives and our year as the clock ticks toward midnight on December 31. While the examined life is not always a satisfying experience, the inclination to reflect and even judge our lives is a natural feeling that is nearly impossible to ignore.
Thoreau’s advice in Walden is a reminder of our powers of self determination and our ability to not only chart our course in life but to also manage how we perceive it. It’s easy to feel a lack of control at points in our lives, and it’s even easier to fall prey to that inclination in times of crisis and uncertainty, like in a global pandemic that just won’t seem to end. Thoreau certainly faced his share of challenge and uncertainty, losing his siblings to disease early in life before succumbing to tuberculosis himself at the age of forty-four. Yet by all accounts, including his own extensive writings, he seemed to never miss a chance to live the life he wanted. Many other writers and artists have sought to explain the conundrum we all face in making sense of our daily lives. And sometimes the lessons can be found in the most unexpected places.
In the film Stranger Than Fiction, the character Harold Crick played by Will Ferrell realizes his life is being narrated by some nameless voice, and he is actually the character in a story, one where he is going to die very soon. As Harold attempts to understand the voice and find some explanation for the dire fate that is quickly approaching, he begins to look at his life with fresh eyes and a sense of urgency. In a rather panicked conversation with an English scholar who has tried to discover the narrative Harold is living, the professor, played whimsically by Dustin Hoffman, advises him to simply live his life and accept the story as it is plays out. That somewhat dismissive advice is, of course, the same guideline we must all live by. Obviously Harold protests, saying “this isn’t a story to me or a philosophy or literary theory, it’s my life.” The professor smiles and tells him to simply “Go out and make it the one you’ve always wanted.” That guidance is the key to the film, and it is also the insight offered by Thoreau.
In many ways the movie Stranger Than Fiction and the advice from the English professor are a succinct reflection of the philosophy of existentialism. Life is basically what the individual makes of it, nothing more and nothing less. Starting with Soren Kierkegaard in the late nineteenth century and continuing with Jean Paul Sarte and Albert Camus in the middle of the twentieth, the existentialists addressed the challenge of living in a seemingly absurdist world, an increasingly apt description these days. At times it seems like the only meaning and purpose in our life is that which we individually and randomly assign to it. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the existentialist writer Albert Camus ponders the absurd fate of the mythical Greek hero Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a huge rock to the top of a mountain, at which point the stone would roll back down. Yet, in embracing a fate rather than lamenting a burden, Camus ends by asserting we “must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
So, as we continue to enjoy the holiday season, bidding farewell to one year while preparing to welcome another, we will again succumb to the irresistible need to reflect on the past and make resolutions for the future. As we seek to understand the lives we live, the benefits we enjoy, the opportunities we receive, and the challenges we face, we can look to Thoreau, we can commiserate with Harold Crick, we can ponder Camus and Sisyphus. And, as we do, looking back in reflection and forward with anticipation on the last day of December, here’s to imagining ourselves happy and living the lives we have imagined.