The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Seven: Trust (May 28)

Previous: Chapter Six: Tree

For Thoreau, trust was primarily self-trust. Even more important than trusting yourself was to be worthy of trust. Ever on the alert for natural and linguistic connections, Thoreau was no doubt aware that trust, truth, troth, and tree share a common root. To be worthy of trust is to be as firm and straight as a tree, to be true to your nature, to be trothed to integrity, to be sincere in your dealings with yourself, to be loyal to a life of principle, to be obedient to higher laws.

These higher laws are the laws of your own being; they are not imposed from without, but are deliberately chosen and obediently followed within. It is the license of your higher being to establish new laws around and within you — such laws as purity, chastity, and temperance. These laws are much harder to live up to than the laws of men, and they point toward the possibility of a divine life. Even though such a life is not completely open to mere mortals, you can capture some of that ethereal quality by practicing an inward and outward austerity, by letting your mind descend into your body and redeem it, by treating yourself with ever increasing respect. This is partly what Thoreau means by advancing confidently in the direction of your dreams and living the life you have imagined.

By fearlessly living out your own essential nature, you connect your life to the divine — even if the divine is, in the end, unattainable. Few are those who contemplate their highest possibilities, who pursue some crowning experiences above and beyond those that the merely common laws might approve, who generate a revolution in their inner lives.

Devotion to the divine and cultivation of the right way of living require self-restraint, self-discipline, self-governance. There are similarities here to the ancient Indian concept of brahmacharya or studenthood: the first phase of life in which you dedicate yourself to deep learning and simple living. You must first train your will, your impulses, and your intellect in order to cultivate the seeds of character, wisdom, and purity.

Developing as it does in the nurturing environment of youth, self-trust might seem opposed to a mature independence. As hinted, perhaps a balance can be found here by imagining the upland farm as located between a college town to the east and a farming community to the west. To find the right away of living, even while building self-trust in your youth, you must also seek out opportunities for reflection and for thinking independently of your family, teachers, and peers.

Self-trust builds on all the attainments of your early life: aspiration, awareness, deliberation, originality, discipline, self-control, steadfastness, integrity, sincerity. Self-trust is, as it were, the crown of the spring virtues, bursting forth with hope and confidence in the future, sprouting naturally alongside the emergence of self and your own firm identity.

Next: Chapter Eight: Flower

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