Brain Pickings

Thoreau on Friendship, Sympathy, and Animal Consciousness

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“A man [is] commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.”

What better way to complement Maurice Sendak’s lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship than with a related reflection from one of modern history’s most beloved thinkers? In The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — which also gave us, for a piece of appropriate meta-irony, Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau — the beloved transcendentalist, born on July 12, 1817, considers the essence of friendship, what it means to be human, and how inextricably connected we are to our fellow non-human beings, who are just as worthy of our sympathy and respect as our human friends.

On July 13, 1857 — the day after his 40th birthday — Thoreau awakens to a resolution for celebrating capital-F friendship as a centerpiece of the good life:

I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities, a new life and relation to me, which perhaps I had not experienced for many months. Such transient thoughts have been my nearest approach to realization of it, thoughts which I know of no one to communicate to. I suddenly erect myself in my thoughts, or find myself erected, infinite degrees above the possibility of ordinary endeavors, and see for what grand stakes the game of life may be played. I catch an echo of the great strain of Friendship played somewhere, and feel compensated for months and years of commonplace. It is as if I were serenaded, and the highest and truest compliments were paid me. The universe gives me three cheers. Friendship is the fruit which the year should bear; it lends its fragrance to the flowers, and it is in vain if we get only a large crop of apples without it.

For Thoreau, the essence of friendship was the cultivation of true sympathy. On a “stern, bleak, inhospitable” January day in 1856, with the temperature a cruel “5° at noon and at 4 P.M.,” Thoreau observes a closed pitch pine cone he had gathered three days prior, which had just opened in his chamber. From this seemingly mundane occurrence he extracts a profound meditation on existence and the ties of sympathy, by way of a squirrel — that uncanny gift from translating the minutia of the physical world into timeless wisdom on the metaphysical is the defining characteristic of his journal:

If you would be convinced how differently armed the squirrel is naturally for dealing with pitch pine cones, just try to get one off with your teeth. He who extracts the seeds from a single closed cone with the aid of a knife will be constrained to confess that the squirrel earns his dinner. It is a rugged customer, and will make your fingers bleed. But the squirrel has the key to this conical and spiny chest of many apartments. He sits on a post, vibrating his tail, and twirls it as a plaything.

But so is a man commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.

In fact, this combined sensitivity to other living beings and exaltation of sympathy as a defining duty of what it means to be human emerges again and again throughout the diary as Thoreau touches on insights predating the modern science of animal consciousness by more than a century. On March 31, 1842, in the last entry before his three-year journal hiatus that ended when Thoreau moved to Walden, he contemplates our interconnectedness with the rest of the living world and the joyous humility that springs from its recognition:

All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair. How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!

[…]

It is the saddest thought of all, that what we are to others, that we are much more to ourselves, — avaricious, mean, irascible, affected, — we are the victims of these faults. If our pride offends our humble neighbor, much more does it offend ourselves, though our lives are never so private and solitary. How many young finny contemporaries of various character and destiny, form and habits, we have even in this water! And it will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries. It is of some import. We shall be some time friends, I trust, and know each other better. Distrust is too prevalent now. We are so much alike! have so many faculties in common! I have not yet met with the philosopher who could, in a quite conclusive, undoubtful way, show me the, and, if not the, then how any, difference between man and a fish. We are so much alike! How much could a really tolerant, patient, humane, and truly great and natural man make of them, if he should try? For they are to be understood, surely, as all things else, by no other method than that of sympathy. It is easy to say what they are not to us, i.e., what we are not to them; but what we might and ought to be is another affair.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 is sublime in its entirety, the kind of lifelong companion to be revisited regularly and voraciously for a wholehearted existence.

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