I am convinced, both by faith and experience,
that to maintain one’s self on this earth
is not a hardship but a pastime.
– Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”
One of the greatest strengths of the Maine character is perseverance, a determination to carry on through difficult circumstances, a genius for hard work, an ability to “make do.” It is a quality forged in heavy seas, hard soil and harsh winters. It has served many Mainers very well over many generations – both here and in the myriad places those who left Maine have settled and prospered.
Today, however, certain manifestations of this very positive character trait have emerged as the greatest obstacle to Maine’s future prosperity. To the extent that “perseverance” means an expectation of at least partial failure, we are shackled by pessimism. To the extent that “making do” means aiming low, we are limited by modest dreams. To the extent that knowing life in Maine is hard carries with it the belief that success here doesn’t measure up to success elsewhere, we impose on ourselves an inferiority complex and a resentment of “outsiders.” To the extent that life in Maine exists in our heads as the trek of a solo rock climber – extremely precarious, defined by very careful, very deliberate and very small moves made only after careful consideration of how they will affect every muscle that doesn’t move – we confine ourselves to the vision of a very beautiful, but very small world.
Today Maine faces problems that low aspirations, limited vision and distrust of the outside world cannot overcome. To make our beautiful spot on the globe more than a seasonal colony for the global 1 percent and a weekend getaway destination for visitors from Massachusetts, we need to think big, cast our eyes far and wide and set our goals as high as our surroundings are beautiful. And the first step in making this transformation must come not through redoubling or redirection of effort – hard work has never been our problem – but through a change of heart. We must trade our pessimism and fear for optimism and faith. We must, like Thoreau, come to see maintaining ourselves on this Earth as a pastime.
OK, now what exactly does that mean?
It means seeing work not as “a job” provided by “an employer;” but as a career path followed through a network of enterprises with whom one shares a passion. Much of Thoreau’s meditation on the nature of work consists of describing his efforts to grow beans and contrasting that with those of his farming neighbors in Concord. The essence of that contrast lies not in horticultural but in spiritual differences, in the anxiety and fear of his neighbors in the face of webs of financial obligations compared to his own peace and wonder in the face of nature. Their “faith and experience” led them to build complicated social and financial responsibilities and restrictions that produced what Thoreau saw as “lives of quiet desperation.” His “faith and experience” led him to pursue – or, as he would probably put it – to “perambulate through” a pastime that produced insight and realization of what he called his “genius.”
The key to Maine’s economic future is cultivating our economic soil in such a way that more and more of us have the experiences that convince us that we can, we should, indeed we must, pursue whatever it is that is our “genius.” Creativity and entrepreneurship is available to all of us. We all won’t start businesses. And those who do won’t grow them all into huge enterprises. But if more and more of us strike out and try, and more and more of us sign on with those whose driving passion attracts us, we will acquire experience. And, like kids playing pick-up baseball or basketball in a field or park, even the last of us picked for a team will leave better able to make our way in whatever the next game proves to be.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at: