Henry David Thoreau, philosopher of post-traumatic growth

In an age of destabilizing climate change, refugee crises, and global pandemics, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the rise, Thoreau’s Walden is more relevant than ever.

Stepping to the beat of a different drum, simple living, appreciation of Nature, civil disobedience—these are themes often associated with nineteenth-century American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. We don’t usually associate Thoreau with the theme of trauma. But he does have important insights on the topic. Thoreau’s masterpiece Walden, in fact, can be read as a manual for post-traumatic growth (i.e., personal growth in the wake of traumatic experiences).

“Thoreau’s PTSD and Posttraumatic Growth,” an article that I co-authored with Michael Sperber, MD, appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of the Thoreau Society Bulletin. This post summarizes some of the main points in the article.

One of the formative events in Henry David Thoreau’s life was the sudden, shocking death of his older brother and best friend, John — a victim of lockjaw (tetanus) — when the two were in their twenties. After John died in his arms, Henry was inconsolable. He even suffered John’s grisly symptoms, psychosomatically, for a time. It was many weeks before he could resume his normal routine, and a cloud hung over him for years. Friends noted that even much later in life he could not speak about his brother’s death without losing his composure.

The latest edition of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists eight criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including intrusion symptoms, negative alterations in cognition and mood, marked alterations in arousal and activity, avoidance, and a resulting impairment of social and occupational functioning for an extended period of time. From Thoreau’s own journal and correspondence, and from what contemporaries wrote about him, it is evident that he met all eight criteria. Henry David Thoreau suffered from PTSD.

But Thoreau did not suffer passively. He actively worked to rebuild his life and his shattered psyche. It is well known that Thoreau moved to Walden Pond to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, as a memorial to John. So the sojourn at Walden Pond represented grief work. But the Walden experiment was also an exercise in post-traumatic growth. Thoreau’s account of the experiment, the book Walden, epitomizes many of the lessons and best practices taught by modern trauma researchers. The book can be read as a manual for post-traumatic growth.

Some of the specific lessons and best practices for post-traumatic growth evident in Walden include the following:

  • Rumination. Growth requires reflection and introspection. The Walden Pond sojourn represented just such a retreat for Thoreau, and he encourages readers to reflect seriously on their own lives too, not to slide by numbly and avoid opportunities for growth. “I wished to live deliberately,” he famously wrote, “and see if I could not learn what [life] had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
  • Positive cognitive processing. Nothing impedes post-traumatic growth like a victim mentality—blaming, complaining, asking “why me?”. A major theme of Walden is taking responsibility for one’s own life. “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names,” he wrote. “Love your life, poor as it is.”
    One specific positive cognitive processing technique that can be very effective is downward comparison—counting one’s blessings by remembering that others are worse off—and Thoreau was a master of it. He considered himself luckier in his impecunious freedom than property owners and inheritors of wealth, for example, who stagger along under the weight of their cares. “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of.”
    Another cognitive processing technique is positive reappraisal, the reframing of challenges as opportunities. Thoreau’s lifelong project of self-cultivation in the Transcendentalist mode served well for this. Every obstacle was an opportunity for growth. “We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.”
    Some people are temperamentally more disposed to positive emotions than others, but a cognitive processing technique available to everyone is the deliberate cultivation of optimism. “Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness,” Thoreau says. As much as anything else, the Walden experiment can be seen as an experiment in militant optimism.
  • Self-efficacy. Post-traumatic growth requires that one believe oneself capable of overcoming challenges and adversity. Successfully launching the Walden experiment itself—building the house by the pond and moving into it—was a demonstration of self-efficacy that laid the groundwork for Thoreau’s subsequent success in grappling with his demons. “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
  • Relationships. Thoreau has a reputation as a recluse, but in fact he had quite a strong support network among his family and friends. He famously had three chairs around his table: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” He valued his solitude, but it is clear from the “Visitors” chapter in Walden that Thoreau also valued the close friendships that sustained him.
  • Spiritual grounding. Religious faith too can help sustain those who suffer. Thoreau wasn’t religious in the ordinary sense, but he found spiritual solace in Nature. “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still,” he wrote. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, . . . that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.”

Successful post-traumatic growth is not the same as relief from the distress of trauma. Some distress may persist. But post-traumatic growth can help one cope with the distress and build a successful new life in the ashes of the old. Clinicians recognize that patients who overcome trauma undertake an archetypical hero’s journey: descending into darkness and chaos and returning to the ordinary world with a gift. Thoreau’s heroic journey into the depths of the soul resulted in the gift of Walden. And Walden is replete with archetypical symbolism that makes the work universal: most importantly, imagery of slumber and wakefulness. “Any prospect of awakening or coming to life to a dead man makes indifferent all times and places” “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. . . . We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” “There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Walden has a well-deserved place in the canon of world literature. It is a quintessential declaration of personal independence that resonates with core American values (popular sovereignty, individual rights) now widely shared around the globe. It is a foundational text of the environmental movement. And countless readers over the generations have taken inspiration from it as a tonic. “How many a man has dated a new era in his life,” Thoreau asks, “from the reading of a book?” We don’t need to have suffered trauma to benefit from Thoreau’s counsel to live our own lives more deliberately. But in the twenty-first century, as we enter a new era of destabilizing climate change and refugee crises, not to mention global pandemics, there will be trauma enough to go around. Walden, Thoreau’s hard-won gift, will still have much to offer as a lifeline and anchor.

Thanks to Mike Sperber for input on this post.

Featured image by ptwo from Allahabad, India – 985 Uploaded by Ekabhishek, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16428533

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