There’s a quote in the footer of this website from the conclusion of Walden by Henry David Thoreau:
There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.
The story continues:
He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.
When I first read those words as a young lad of seventeen, devoting my life to making one single perfect thing was a very appealing prospect. Back then I was about to start my first year at college, and I was processing the implications of that new phase of life and all the choices it entailed: Choosing a concentration, choosing classes, choosing friends and social activities. Choosing a career. How would I spend my time? The answers I chose would have lasting effects.
Walden and Thoreau’s philosophy affected me deeply. I believed then, and still do, that we can be happier with less. Owning less, doing less. But until that point in my life, it had all been theoretical. I lived with my parents. I had only really worked for a few summers, without the pressure of earning a living. Still, I worried I was stepping into the rat race unwittingly. I enjoyed taking photos and writing and making little websites. Would those passions go by the wayside? Only if I let them.
College provided a few years to change course, and Walden was my touchstone the whole time. I read it every day. I would finish it, then immediately start over again, gleaning something new with each re-read. For a while I was the artist in the city of Kouroo. I tried to work on my writing single-mindedly. I tried to pare my life down to the essentials, although I had a lot of books. I became a really unhealthy vegetarian, then a really unhealthy vegan. But I still couldn’t manage to make time stand still.
You see, I was also dealing with crippling anxiety and depression. The Kouroo story, and by extension much of Thoreau’s philosophy, really did a number on my perfectionist and purist tendencies. I wanted to be a Boddhisatva, or, if that didn’t work out, at least a philosopher. But mental illness had other plans.
It’s been at least ten years since I’ve read or had the desire to read Walden. It informed a critical period of my life, and I would not be who I am without it. But at a certain point it became clear that it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all philosophy, at least not for me. I needed to do my own navigating.
So why do I still love that quote? Sentimental reasons, I guess. But I don’t take it quite so literally anymore. I will always “strive after perfection” — it’s in my nature. But now I see the passing of time as a beautiful thing. My depression has receded, my anxiety is in check, and I’m learning to cope with perfectionism. I want to make things that are pretty good, then let people judge for themselves.