The first time literature spoke to me was in college when I was introduced to Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau voted with his feet that “modern” life was not accommodating to his soul, and so he retreated to the woods and sought authenticity, declaring, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
The notion of “not having lived” as one comes to the end of his life stunned me and did so because I saw its relevance to my life at age 21. And, I did not fully understand then why, but it immediately brought to my mind the famous words of Jesus, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” The “not having lived” of Thoreau and the “loss of soul” that Jesus spoke of were one and the same, but I could not really explain it at that point. The insight was intuitive.
Thoreau recognized that modern life was increasingly alienated, that it increasingly cut man off from nature and from himself, turning him into a cog in an industrial apparatus. Thorough intuitively knew what we have come to witness more overtly, that Western civilization was producing a culture of consumers, people whose modus operandi was “consuming”, or “getting stuff.” (And, if he were alive today, he would marvel at how prescient he had been.!) Jesus too recognized that mankind in his day were overly invested in the “stuff” of the day, though rampant consumerism had not blighted human consciousness yet. But he recognized that mankind was missing the point, that they were guilty of the sin of “misplaced concreteness” even then taking for real that which was only ephemeral. When Jesus taught, “Ye must be born again” he was telling us, “Hey, there is another dimension of life that you need to tap into. What you see is not all that there is. You are not all that you know yourself to be. You are more than that mere concept.”