The Marginalian
The Marginalian

An Introvert’s Field Guide to Friendship: Thoreau on the Challenges and Rewards of the Art of Connection

“We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.”

Friendship is the sunshine of life — the quiet radiance that makes our lives not only livable but worth living. (This is why we must use the utmost care in how we wield the word friend.) In my own life, friendship has been the lifeline for my darkest hours of despair, the magnifying lens for my brightest joys, the quiet pulse-beat beneath the daily task of living. You can glean a great deal about a person from the constellation of friends around the gravitational pull of their personhood. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed as she contemplated how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship. Her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson — whom she taught to look through a telescope — believed that all true friendship rests on two pillars. In his own life, he put the theory into practice in his friendship with his young protégé Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — a solitary and achingly introverted person himself, who thought deeply and passionately about the rewards and challenges of friendship.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

Like all unusual people, Thoreau had a hard time connecting. In a desponded diary entry from his mid-thirties, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library), he writes:

Why should I speak to my friends? for how rarely is it that I am I; and are they, then, they? We will meet, then, far away.

Several months later, just before the Christmas holidays with their cruel magnifying lens of loneliness for the lonely, he rues his inability to connect openheartedly:

My difficulties with my friends are such as no frankness will settle. There is no precept in the New Testament that will assist me. My nature, it may be, is secret. Others can confess and explain; I cannot.

Thoreau finds himself pocked with self-doubt about his ability to connect, his sense of isolation at times swelling into punitive despair:

Nothing makes me so dejected as to have met my friends, for they make me doubt if it is possible to have any friends. I feel what a fool I am.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller

Over and over, Thoreau anguishes with the extreme shyness and reticence of his nature, longs for a confidante beyond the diary page, longs for companionship beyond the birds and the trees. On a beautiful spring Sunday, he despairs:

I have got to that pass with my friend that our words do not pass with each other for what they are worth. We speak in vain; there is none to hear. He finds fault with me that I walk alone, when I pine for want of a companion; that I commit my thoughts to a diary even on my walks, instead of seeking to share them generously with a friend; curses my practice even. Awful as it is to contemplate, I pray that, if I am the cold intellectual skeptic whom he rebukes, his curse may take effect, and wither and dry up those sources of my life, and my journal no longer yield me pleasure nor life.

Months after publishing Walden, with its lyrical celebration of solitude, his loneliness deepens into a primal scream of longing for connection:

What if we feel a yearning to which no breast answers? I walk alone. My heart is full. Feelings impede the current of my thoughts. I knock on the earth for my friend. I expect to meet him at every turn; but no friend appears, and perhaps none is dreaming of me.

And yet this openhearted longing is itself the only real raw material of friendship — only by surrendering to it, with all the vulnerability this demands of us, do we become receptive to the longing of others, the mutual yearning for connection that is shared heartbeat of humanity. Thoreau quietly intuits this equivalence, so that when he does connect, when he does feel the warm glow of friendship envelop him, it is nothing less than an exultation:

Ah, my friends, I know you better than you think, and love you better, too.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

At only twenty-four, Thoreau had arrived at a foundational fact of living — his own grand unified theory of human connection, which he spent the remainder of his short life trying, often with touching difficulty, to put into practice:

Friends are those twain who feel their interests to be one. Each knows that the other might as well have said what he said. All beauty, all music, all delight springs from apparent dualism but real unity. My friend is my real brother.

Pulsating beneath all of his uneasy reckonings is a deep-thinking, deep-feeling recognition of the essence of friendship:

The field where friends have met is consecrated forever. Man seeks friendship out of the desire to realize a home here… The friend is like wax in the rays that fall from our own hearts. My friend does not take my word for anything, but he takes me. He trusts me as I trust myself. We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

Complement these fragments from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau — a biblical kind of book, replete with his deep-souled wisdom on how to see more clearly, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — with Seneca on true and false friendship, Kahlil Gibran on the building blocks of meaningful connection, Henry Miller on the relationship between creativity and community, Lewis Thomas on the poetic science of why we are wired for connection, and this lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship.


From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became

The making of our densely networked crucible of thought and tenderness.

From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became

It seems inconceivable — that everything we know, everything we love, everything that ever was and ever will be, banged into being from the singularity, and out of that near-nothingness arose mitochondria and music and “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” all of it conspiring in the wonder of consciousness — the universe’s way of comprehending itself.

Down here on Earth, as if the way life evolved weren’t miracle enough, we were handed down through billions of years of evolution the miraculous benediction of brains — those densely networked crucibles of thought and tenderness, out of which our capacity for transcendence arises.

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s revolutionary drawings of the brain.

In an uncommonly poetic passage from his novel The Echo Maker (public library), Richard Powers traces the evolution of that benediction, from its cellular beginnings to its existential end:

Energy fell on an ancient cell; the cell registered. Some prodding set off a chemical cascade that incised the cell and changed its structure, forming a cast of the signals that fell on it. Eons later, two cells clasped, signaling each other, squaring the number of states they might inscribe. The link between them altered. The cells fired easier with each fire, their changing connections remembering a trace of the outside. A few dozen such cells slung together in a lowly slug: already an infinitely reshaping machine, halfway to knowing. Matter that mapped other matter, a plastic record of light and sound, place and motion, change and resistance. Some billions of years and hundreds of billions of neurons later, and these webbed cells wired up a grammar — a notion of nouns and verbs and even prepositions. Those recording synapses, bent back onto themselves — brain piggy-backing and reading itself as it read the world — exploded into hopes and dreams, memories more elaborate than the experience that chiseled them, theories of other minds, invented places as real and detailed as anything material, themselves matter, microscopic electro-etched worlds within the world, a shape for every shape out there, with infinite shapes left over: all dimensions springing from this thing the universe floats in. But never hot or cold, solid or soft, left or right, high or low, but only the image, the store. Only the play of likeness cut by chemical cascades, always undoing the state that did the storing. Semaphores at night, cobbling up even the cliff they signaled from… Unsponsored, impossible, near-omnipotent, and infinitely fragile.

Complement with the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas’s forgotten masterpiece The Fragile Species and the fascinating science of how we think not with the brain but with the world, then revisit Powers on the power of music, living in bewilderment, and how to begin rewriting our planetary future.


O Sweet Spontaneous: E.E. Cummings’s Love-Poem to Earth and the Glory of Spring

The ultimate anthem of resistance to the assaults on life.

O Sweet Spontaneous: E.E. Cummings’s Love-Poem to Earth and the Glory of Spring

There is a nonspecific gladness that envelops humanity in the first days of spring, as if kindness itself were coming abloom in the cracks of crowded sidewalks, quelling our fears, swallowing our sorrows, salving the savage loneliness. We are reminded then that spring — this insentient byproduct of the shape of our planet’s orbit and the tilt of its axis — may just be Earth’s existential superpower, the supreme affirmation of life in the face of every assault on it.

That superpower comes alive with dazzling might in a century-old poem by E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962), originally published in his 1923 collection Tulips & Chimneys (public library) — that epochal gauntlet at the conventions of poetry, which went on to influence generations of writers, readers, and daring makers of the unexampled across the spectrum of creative work — and read at the fifth annual Universe in Verse by the polymathic creative force that is Debbie Millman, with a side of Bach.

by e.e. cummings

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

            fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

        beauty    how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

            thou answerest

them only with


Couple with spring with Emily Dickinson, then revisit E.E. Cummings (who, contrary to popular myth, signed his name both lowercase and capitalized) on the courage to be yourself.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor Roxane Gay reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To the Young Who Want to Die,” Zoë Keating reading Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” Rebecca Solnit reading Helene Johnson’s “Trees at Night,” and a series of animated poems celebrating nature.


The Value of Being Wrong: Lewis Thomas on Generative Mistakes

In praise of our “property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.”

The Value of Being Wrong: Lewis Thomas on Generative Mistakes

We know that life is the self-correcting mechanism for error — as much in its evolutionary history as in its existential reality. And yet we are living our lives under the tyranny of perfection, as if all the right answers await us at the end of some vector we must follow infallibly until we arrive at the ultimate ideal. But the truth is that we simply don’t know — we don’t know where life ultimately leads, we don’t know what we want or what to want, and we don’t really know ourselves. It is by erring again and again that we find the shape of the path, by tripping again and again that we learn to walk it. Along the way, the answers emerge not before us but in us.

Van Gogh knew this when he reckoned with how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) knew it when he composed his wonderful essay “To Err Is Human,” found in his 1979 collection The Medusa and the Snail (public library) — one of my all-time favorite books.

Lewis Thomas (Photograph: NYU archives)

With an eye to the advances in so-called artificial intelligence that our machines made in a blink of evolutionary time — the fruition of Samuel Butler’s prescient Victorian prophecy of the emergency of a new “mechanical kingdom” of life — Thomas writes:

A good computer can think clearly and quickly, enough to beat you at chess, and some of them have even been programmed to write obscure verse. They can do anything we can do, and more besides.

An epoch before ChatGPT, he adds:

As extensions of the human brain, they have been constructed with the same property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.

Rather than measuring the merit of our machines the punitive way we measure our own — by fidelity to some ideal of perfection — Thomas argues that this capacity for error is the supreme gift of the mind, of the more-than-machine we live inside, capable of surprising itself and capable, therefore, of glorious deviations from course, into new vistas of possibility:

Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as frequently as the right ones. We get along in life this way. We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.

We learn, as we say, by “trial and error.” Why do we always say that? Why not “trial and rightness” or “trial and triumph”? The old phrase puts it that way because that is, in real life, the way it is done.

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

This generative possibility of being wrong is by definition a function of the friction around being right — contention is the crucible of creation, within us and between us. (The great writer and jazz scholar Albert Murray called this creative friction “antagonistic cooperation.”) Thomas observes:

Whenever new kinds of thinking are about to be accomplished, or new varieties of music, there has to be an argument beforehand. With two sides debating in the same mind, haranguing, there is an amiable understanding that one is right and the other wrong. Sooner or later the thing is settled, but there can be no action at all if there are not the two sides, and the argument. The hope is in the faculty of wrongness, the tendency toward error. The capacity to leap across mountains of information to land lightly on the wrong side represents the highest of human endowments.

The possibility of wrong choices is itself an assurance of multiple options — a multiplicity that is always our best bet for creative paths forward that transcend the blockages of the past. Thomas writes:

We are at our human finest, dancing with our minds, when there are more choices than two. Sometimes there are ten, even twenty different ways to go, all but one bound to be wrong, and the richness of selection in such situations can lift us onto totally new ground. This process is called exploration and is based on human fallibility. If we had only a single center in our brains, capable of responding only when a correct decision was to be made, instead of the jumble of different, credulous, easily conned clusters of neurons that provide for being flung off into blind alleys, up trees, down dead ends, out into blue sky, along wrong turnings, around bends, we could only stay the way we are today, stuck fast.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In a sentiment that applies as much to our personal existential evolution as to the collective creative challenge of abating climate change, he adds:

What we need, then, for moving ahead, is a set of wrong alternatives much longer and more interesting than the short list of mistaken courses that any of us can think up right now… If it is a big enough mistake, we could find ourselves on a new level, stunned, out in the clear, ready to move again.

Complement with philosopher Daniel Dennett on the art-science of making fertile mistakes and philosopher Amélie Rorty on the value of our self-delusions, then revisit Lewis Thomas on the mystery of the self, our human potential, and his forgotten masterpiece about how to live with ourselves and each other.


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