Graduates: Beware Thoreau

By Mark A. Isaacson

There is a special canon of quotes for graduation season. Emerson, Churchill, Roosevelt (Eleanor), Angelou—they populate the greeting card aisle and countless commencement speeches. Though famous to the point of being cliché, they still have the power to uplift. But one has become perhaps the most famous. It is that of Henry David Thoreau, Class of 1837: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

Note to Hallmark (and my fellow seniors): Thoreau, I believe, got it all backward.

Let me explain.

As we approach commencement, the Class of 2011 is torn between anxious anticipation of what is to come and warm reflection on our years here. And as we relive our best Harvard moments, it is worth considering them in light of those words of Thoreau’s. (After all, at least one relative will send a card emblazoned with his words.)

So, think about it: How many of those great moments did we actually imagine before arriving on campus? How many of our best Harvard experiences did we foresee? Are we sad to leave because our time here was exactly what we imagined four years ago, or is it because it defied expectations? On reflection, the brightest of the bright spots are, more often than not, those that were unexpected, undreamed, and unimagined.

But it is not just seniors who should know this by now. Harvard has taught us all something—whether we recognize it or not: Reject notions like Thoreau’s. (One wonders if he truly believed what he said, anyway. Are we really to picture an 18-year-old Thoreau lying awake at night in Hollis imagining an ascetic life on Walden Pond that would inspire a literary masterpiece? I doubt it.) Expectations rarely align with reality. When Al Gore ’69 arrived on campus, he planned to be a novelist. Author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Class of 1829, expected to be a lawyer. Bill Gates planned to graduate.

Conversely, a senior’s bout of nostalgia also provokes thoughts of what we missed—of opportunities passed over, of times we chose to follow carefully laid plans. Maybe it was a missed chance to be inspired by an intellectual luminary. Maybe it was a missed chance to deepen a relationship. Now, this is no time for regrets, but each of us has them. We know what they are. And how many were caused by our own refusal to deviate from the path we imagined—our insistence on adhering to carefully laid plans?

The fact remains, though: We like predictability. We like pre-planned order. It’s our nature. We often reject the present possibilities of a new opportunity when it just does not fit with the unguaranteed future we have crafted in our minds.

Perhaps it is because we are told to do so. We are told to follow our dreams, to follow our imaginations. In other words, we are encouraged to base today on the future. But when we do this—when we commit ourselves to dreams, expectations, the imagined life Thoreau had in mind—we lose a certain license for liberation. We miss out on the sorts of things that create much-treasured memories. Clinging to overly imagined dreams can be just as self-defeating as utter apathy. We do not live life, but rather pass through it—refusing detours or sudden turns away from the destination we’ve imagined.

Instead, we would be better advised to do the opposite: Rather than basing today on the future, base the future on today. We should not let our future determine what we do today; we should let today determine our future. And to do that, we must open up. We must forget about playing it safe. We must value the possibilities of unimagined present happiness more than we value the security of an imagined future.

This is not to say stop dreaming altogether. That would be terribly uninspiring. But it is to say don’t let dreams become shackles. Don’t let your imagination blind you to better things. It is not a failure to deviate from the grand narrative arc that we have constructed for our lives; in fact, if we think about it, we might realize it is in so deviating that we are more likely to find our greatest happiness and perhaps even our greatest successes. We should free ourselves for success. We should remember the lesson we have learned here. Those of us leaving campus and those of us returning should endeavor equally to live more and dream less.

So, a new version of Thoreau’s words is in order. It is perhaps literary “civil disobedience” to suggest as much, but I think Thoreau of all people would understand.

And that version goes something like this: Go confidently in any direction. Live the life you never imagined.

Mark A. Isaacson ’11 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.

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