Happy Discovery

I lazily asked in a previous post if Thoreau’s account of helping an escaped slave was a one-time thing or what. Here is the answer, from Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer, Yale University Press, p. 147:

It makes me happy to learn this. Maybe everybody else in the world already knew; anyway, I’m glad to find it out. I wondered for a moment why he would have ridden the train along with the fugitive. I’m guessing it’s because a fugitive would not know where anything was, and would be afraid to speak and draw attention to himself by asking questions. We know Thoreau bought the tickets (thus interacting with the railroad employee, who was probably supposed to keep an eye out for anyone who might be an escaped slave, don’t you think? I’m guessing.) Maybe he sat within view of the escapee, and stood to get off the train when the train arrived at the correct station, and then helped the person reach the next helper.

By assisting runaway slaves, Thoreau was disobeying the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He could have been fined $1,000 (about $30,000 today) and imprisoned for up to six months. Maybe he thought the probabilities were in his favor, but surely it took some nerve to risk being seized and put in jail for who knows how long.

I’ve never done anything remotely as courageous as that. Brave has usually been applied to me, at long intervals, by some kind friend to describe my saying something unpopular for a principled reason, or maybe expressing something vulnerable in order to sustain a relationship. Most of the time, among my tribe of prosperous Northeastern progressives, brave is applied sentimentally. It doesn’t refer to much.

What about you? Did you ever risk your freedom, or a major amount of money, for someone or something? Are you glad you did?

I’ve devoted most of my life to keeping myself together. Sure, some years were lost to ill health. But really, there is no excuse for my excessive inwardness and self-concern. I think I have failed the vision that my religion has put before me all my life. What is your value system? I don’t care whether it involves a divine being; you may have high ideals that are purely humanistic. Do you measure up to your understanding of how you should be? If you don’t, how do you live with that realization?

I wonder if Thoreau prayed. We generalize the notion of prayer to include almost any quiet, slowed-down action, like my saying the other day that waiting is a kind of prayer. Kind of — weasel words!! Well, when Quakers do it, they are intentionally opening themselves to the spirit of God, so I guess I was on solid ground. (Or, at least, they were 40 years ago. Now they may be opening themselves to the spirit of the cosmos or the genome or who knows what, I think they are not far behind the Unitarians these days.) But I think it would stretch the concept of prayer too far to assert that every act of waiting is inherently prayerful. So, no, even if Henry did get to stand up to his chin in a retired swamp all day, that would not in itself constitute prayer.

If I thought there was no divine being, I might just wade into that swamp with no intention of returning. There has to be ultimate goodness, there has to be resolution. There has to be forgiveness.

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