In 1845, Henry David Thoreau made a famous pilgrimage to Walden Pond in Massachusetts to live in a tiny cabin that he built in the woods. He went to the woods, as he wrote, “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.” He would live on his own means—no electricity and no running water—and like a Spartan, he would “suck out all the marrow of life” and “reduce it to its lowest terms.”
He recorded his experiences in a book called Walden, which is assigned in high schools and quoted in Hollywood movies to illustrate the virtues of self-reliance and humankind’s connection with nature.
I have a confession: I hate Walden. I’ve been envious of Thoreau—and not in a good way—ever since I read about his pilgrimage to nature. The story reminds me of my own inadequacies.
You see, I’m a city boy, raised in the urban sprawl of Istanbul—home to 15 million people. I have the soft hands of a typist. I don’t own power tools. My work injuries consist of paper cuts (they can be nasty). If you put me in a cabin in Walden Pond—cut off electricity, running water, and wi-fi access—I wouldn’t survive. So I envy people like Thoreau who can deliberately expose themselves to rough conditions and survive—nay, thrive.
A few weeks ago, when I was reading Amanda Palmer’s excellent book The Art of Asking, I discovered a few more details about Thoreau’s “wild” experiment with “self reliance.”
It turns out that the cabin Thoreau built was less than two miles from his house—not in some remote woodland, as the story might imply. Almost every day, he took trips back to civilization, which was walking distance in nearby Concord, Massachusetts. He ate dinner at his buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house all the time. My favorite part: Every weekend, “Thoreau’s mother and sister brought him a basket of freshly baked goods, including donuts.”
The historian Richard Zacks sums it up well: “Let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar.”
I don’t tell this story to poke fun at Thoreau (okay, maybe a little bit). I tell it because it highlights a far more important lesson: The people we put on a pedestal often can’t live up to their own legend.
Long before social media, people were creating positive curated portrayals of their lives. If Thoreau lived in the age of Instagram, he may have been shooting selfies in front of his self-made cabin, while neglecting to snap photos of himself devouring baked goods freshly delivered to his doorstep.
Much of what you see on the Internet is fake. You can purchase 5,000 Instagram followers for $40 or get 5,000 YouTube views for $15. There are click farms, which are businesses where hundreds of computers and smartphones play the same content over and over to drive up fake engagement (here’s a video of one at work). People are even posting fake sponsored content on social media, pretending to be brand ambassadors even though they’re not getting paid. Why? “In the influencer world, it’s street cred,” said Brian Phanthao, himself a self-proclaimed influencer. “The more sponsors you have, the more credibility you have.”
Gloss reflects more than it reveals. Nothing is as it seems.
The next time you’re tempted to put someone on a pedestal because of the story they tell to the world, just picture Henry David Thoreau—not sucking on the marrow of life—but feasting on his mom-made donuts.