It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
Walden (Life in the Woods), Henry David Thoreau (1854)
It is almost universally accepted that the character of our lives is a matter over which most of us have dominion. This is normally translated as an acknowledgement that we are what we think. This in turn becomes the popular prescription for having happy thoughts. Customarily the recipe amounts to motivational speeches or the power of positive thinking. Not infrequently we are encouraged to capitulate, either to ourselves or to a higher power (usually a religious god). Whatever the course adopted or proposed, the object is invariably that we shall discover accommodation for what is blithely called happiness. Pointedly however the very ambivalence of the object trivializes the formula for getting there.
In this as in many quandaries the priority is to ask not what is the answer but rather what is the question? The answer is indisputably “You are what you think” but this is so fatuous as to be irrelevant. It tells us nothing at all in spite of its pithiness. The more fruitful enquiry is to determine what is the question? As Henry David Thoreau posed the dilemma, it is to “affect the quality of the day”. In an odd paradox the question is therefore directed to the external world of life while the answer is directed to the internal world of thought. Thoreau was notably a transcendentalist, one who believed that our intellectual preoccupations are less reliant on objective empiricism and more on subjective intuition. He believed in the power of the individual, particularly one who was independent and who lived simply. Perhaps he suffered in his own monastic pretence and sanctimony the same liability endured by the wealthy armchair philosophers; namely, he lived in a dream-world whether it were a cabin by a lake or a well-appointed study in a mansion. Nonetheless he unwittingly exemplified that whatever the vernacular the kernel of truth was both elevated and critical, not pedestrian and edgeless. Sharpness in thinking is by definition direct and simple, easily understood and uncomplicated. One must however impart to one’s observations analytical perception. In that respect the value of one’s thinking is not that it distorts the world but rather that it explains it. Thus to say “you are what you think” is not conveniently to disguise reality but to interpret it. Our interpretation of the fodder afforded us in the contemplation of life is the enlightenment we gain, not the cheerful gloss we put upon it. What you think is not meant to be an expedient vehicle for personal transformation, rather it is the instrument to see and understand what life offers.
We must however be prepared to accept some rude truths, the gross and unrefined nature of our reality. To resist the insinuation of that texture is to muffle the sound and eventually to deaden the delicate flower that springs from the roots within us.