On Thursday, May 4, 1970 (45 years ago today), I was a Junior in high school sitting in a boring English class, looking out the window when I heard the the teacher ask us if we had heard the news of the Kent State shootings. For the first time, she had my undivided attention.
The image that first ran through my mind was of a lone, crazy gunman shooting at young people. But then Ms. Brown said something incredible. National Guardsmen had fired 67 shots in less than 15 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine more. They were shot protesting the Cambodian bombing. Our own military had fired on and killed our own young people.
I had recently purchased a paperback copy of Henry David Thoreau's book Walden, which also contained his "Essay on Civil Disobedience". It is this essay that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The book lay on my dresser unread until that day.
After school, I picked the book up and read it from cover to cover. I still have that book on my shelf and it is still an inspiration to me.
In his book, Walden, Thoreau says that the majority of people live a life of quiet desperation. In other words, people want more than they are able to get out of life; they yearn for a higher life. Thoreau believed that inside each person is something greater waiting to escape, but we suppress those inner desires for the heavier expectations that everyday life puts on us. We are afraid to do what it takes to actually make the world a better place. In fact, most people want the world to be better, but they believe that their efforts would not make a difference.
And so, they do nothing, but they still yearn for something more.
In his "Essay on Civil Disobedience", written in 1849, Thoreau wrote about "the majority of one". Here is what he said: "I know this well, that if one thousand; if one hundred; if ten men whom I could name- if ten honest men only- aye, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever."
Since that time, I have thought often of that day in English class. It changed me but I wonder how it changed me. And I wonder what I have done to make the world a better place. And I am filled with sense of quiet desperation.