On Living Deliberately | Facing History & Ourselves
Kaitlin Smith kneeling in front of a rock pile and cairns left by visitors at the original site of Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, Massachusetts.

On Living Deliberately

Kaitlin Smith offers personal reflections on what it means to live deliberately.

In the 200+ pieces I have written during my time at Facing History, I have written only one other essay in the first person. I am writing just one more to announce that I will be leaving my role at the organization at the end of July and that this will be my last essay as a primary author of content on this platform. As I have approached this transition, I have been sitting with the many lessons I have learned during my 3.5 years at the organization, both through my engagement with Facing History’s curricular offerings and with our global network of staff and collaborators. Chief among these lessons revolves around the perennial question of what it means to live deliberately. Prior to my arrival at Facing History, the organization highlighted the influence that one of my favorite historical figures—transcendentalist philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau—had on the civil rights movement. His life and words have pervaded my thoughts recently as I’ve reflected upon the work of Facing History and my professional journey within and beyond the organization. 

After quitting his job as a schoolteacher because he was unwilling to administer corporal punishment and launching an experimental school of his own, Thoreau grew increasingly suspicious of the value of even progressive education conducted in institutional settings and famously retreated to a portion of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wooded estate along Walden Pond in Massachusetts. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote and a year after his arrival in 1846, he was jailed for not paying state poll taxes in protest of the institution of slavery, the oppression of Native Americans, and the Mexican-American War. His philosophy of resistance would be immortalized in his landmark essay “Civil Disobedience” and go on to inspire the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin a century later.

From activist luminaries to everyday thinkers, a great many people have derived inspiration from Thoreau’s life and thought, but the question of how to actually live deliberately continues to confront new generations and it is one that seems to lie at the heart of the work of Facing History. 

For Thoreau at the start of Walden, living deliberately meant leading a life of solitude, self-reliance, and intimate connection to the natural world. He constructed his own home where he embraced voluntary simplicity as he communed with the woodchucks, hawks, loons, and various other creatures who lived with him along Walden Pond. In so doing, he sought to disentangle his own subsistence and daily activities from the violence, slavery, mindless obedience, and escalating distractions and superficialities of early industrial society. As a fellow naturalist, I know well the immense enjoyment that comes from attuning myself to earthly rhythms in the face of unceasing distractions, but I also know that such practices do not disentangle me from the many contradictions of the wider world.

While Thoreau’s experiment at Walden has inspired many, contemporary critics have drawn attention to the ways in which he also remained tethered to the world he purportedly disavowed. An example of this was that he went regularly to his mother’s house to do his laundry and relied on others’ resources to help him stay afloat in what would have otherwise been an unsustainable degree of isolation. 

The paradoxical beauty and impossibility of Thoreau’s quest echoes in our own time. Certainly for anyone living in the U.S. in the 21st century, the opportunity to live in total obscurity and disconnection from the global economy by relying solely on the fruits of one’s own labor on the land have all but disappeared through a combination of social, political, technological, and ecological developments. How, then, can we escape the moral ambiguity of relying on global consumer culture for at least some portion of our subsistence? What does it mean to live a truly ethical life and how do we make sense of the lives and choices we now have? It seems that the question for us is not what it means to live deliberately in a cabin in the woods that exists apart from the trappings of industrial society and its many possible futures. We are instead called to reckon with what it means to live deliberately in the midst of the deeply flawed world we have, whether we make our homes in wooded or urban environs. 

This reckoning with deliberate living in a world enveloped in violence and injustice inevitably invites what Thoreau described as “disobedience,” but even that is complicated. In 2022 when we have an unprecedented level of global social complexity that readily complicates assignment of fault and causality, it has become difficult to meaningfully discern who or what to blame, who or what to resist, whether or not we are resisting effectively, and whether our actions can drive the change we desire. Further, are we sure we are not the ones holding the keys to the metaphorical castle? Are we sure that power is located elsewhere or in others and not in ourselves? If so, do we have the courage and capability to disobey ourselves?

My view is that no one escapes the many complicities and contradictions inherent in our deeply entangled modern lives, and our attempts to transform the world at large reflect these limitations. From the utopian social visions that devolved into immense violence in the Chinese Cultural Revolution to various successful efforts to destabilize the Black freedom struggle from within and without, it’s abundantly clear to me that no one really knows how to change the world if what we mean by that is remake it in an image of our choosing. It appears that we’re all just fumbling in the direction of something and perhaps that something is merely authenticity.

When I came to Facing History 3.5 years ago, I did not expect to find much respite from these challenging conditions, but I did.

I unexpectedly found laughter, friendship, and a warm community of people dedicated to fumbling toward authenticity together. For all of the times I brought divergent perspectives to our ongoing deliberations and struggled with the pace of change, I can say with honesty that the gestalt of these experiences healed me in ways that have enlarged my capacities as a person. The kindness that I found here may not heal the problems of the world, but it has offered healing nevertheless, however imperceptible on a grander scale. For all of the ways that interpersonal gestures are insufficient solutions to the broader systemic ills that confront us, my experience has shown me that the mirroring of a kind face that offers empathy, reassurance, and curiosity really can facilitate healing and change. I’ve come to the conclusion that living deliberately in the world we have, then, also means seeking connection, good will, and the co-creation of even fleeting experiences of hope. These experiences need not exist apart from the darkness, ugliness, hypocrisy, and abject insanity of the modern world. Indeed, they cannot. It seems that all we can really do is fumble toward authenticity and embrace the ongoing process of growth that authenticity requires. 

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” Thoreau wrote, inaugurating a new chapter in his path of deliberate living. “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves… The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels,” he wrote. Yet departing from these well-worn paths and into greater authenticity often requires not just courage and vision, but also the support and kindness of other human beings that allow us to exist in a state of imperfect communion rather than total isolation. 

A central takeaway is that just as Thoreau relied on various people during and after his time at Walden, we need each other as we attempt to fumble toward authenticity, however awkward and uncoordinated it may appear at times. Doing this in a world that expropriates our labor and our very consciousness at every turn is a tall order. From individual people to organizations to entire social blocs, fumbling toward authenticity and values-aligned action in a world that calls upon us to repeatedly sell ourselves is, undoubtedly, one of the most difficult things we’ll ever do, but it’s also the journey of a lifetime.

The next stage of my journey beyond Facing History includes returning to graduate school to start a PhD this fall. Energized in part by various formative experiences in my previous work as a psychotherapist and scholar, my first project will interrogate the conceptual foundations of psychology through a number of critical prisms including intellectual history, critical theory, and African American Studies. I’m pleased to say that my experiences at Facing History have helped to further solidify my commitment to public scholarship and that I will continue to deliver writing and instruction outside of the ivory tower alongside my academic pursuits. The best way to stay abreast of my new writings and offerings is to join my mailing list at KaitlinSmith.net and follow me on Twitter (now called X) at @kaitlinsm1th.

Thank you for your readership and for your interest in my journey. May we all be courageous in our parallel processes of fumbling toward authenticity and, as I have, encounter some wonderful co-travelers along the way.

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