I call this Walden Three in reference to Thoreau’s book, Walden, and to B. F. Skinner’s book, Walden Two. Thoreau’s Walden was a pond in a secluded woods, where a person could commune with nature and appreciate “being” in a very basic way. Skinner’s Walden, Two was a designed community, where humans could apply the knowledge of human behavior to the creation of a rewarding and controllable human habitat. In Walden Three, I mean the world as it is for all humans. It is the world we live in, a place where a person can commune with nature and where humans can create a rewarding environment for themselves. However, if that is the case, why does the world often seem to be a grim and foreboding place? I, like many others, struggled with that question for many years. With the help of Thoreau, Skinner, and many others, I found an answer — for myself anyway.
In 1973, when I was 32 years old, I quit teaching. It was a difficult decision because I had finally found what I thought was the ideal teaching position for me. However, the circumstances of my life convinced me that, if I continued to work, I would be sacrificing the few things in life that really made sense to me at the time. Most importantly, my three children (ages 4, 6, 7) were experiencing some difficulties, and it seemed indefensible that I should be expending all my energy on other children while my own were suffering. Also, I believed that the only way I could continue to do a good job as a teacher was by taking pills to keep me going, a solution that felt like a dead end to me. I was very tired, and I was disappointed at not finding a comfortable place for myself in the world of people. However, I reasoned that by quitting work, I could at least concentrate on becoming comfortable with myself.
Ideally, I would have liked to have gone to live alone in a cabin in the woods, learning about life and about myself as Thoreau did at Walden Pond. I was inspired by his often-quoted words:
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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms…… (p. 59)
Of course, with three kids and a husband, such a move wasn’t practical. Instead I decided to live as simply and as close to nature as was possible in the city. After I left my job, I took long walks alone and with my kids at a nature center and in the cemeteries and park near my house. We learned to identify trees and wildflowers. We collected leaves, dried plants, driftwood, and other natural things to use for school projects or for making decorations for our home. I had time to read the works of many different thinkers. I had the opportunity to develop new skills that I had always wanted to try. As the years went by, life frequently was very sweet, and I realized that I could be very happy as a semi-hermit. I thought it would be particularly easy if we had some land of our own out in the country, and we seriously considered moving.
There was, however, one gnawing problem. Although I felt that I had found a way for life to be meaningful, it didn’t seem that mine could be a valid answer to life’s questions if it wasn’t a possibility for everyone. If solitude and space are necessary for meaningfulness and happiness, then what are the chances of happiness for houseboat dwellers off the coasts of China, slum dwellers of Latin America, or those living in poverty in the United States? Does happiness for some of us mean that some people must be unhappy or else that the population of the earth must be decreased? I had been reading books that gave many different answers which made sense while I was reading them but were contradictory and confusing when considered all together. Eventually, I realized that “Walden” couldn’t be a satisfying answer for me and I decided to go on living in the city.
My children were older by that time so it made sense to re-enter the world of work and of society at large. It seemed to me by then that, in addition to solitude and the appreciation of nature, the meaning of life must have something to do with interpersonal interaction within one’s culture. In search of such meaning, I worked for a few years at various jobs, but the work wasn’t satisfying. Finally, I decided to go back to school part time, working toward a graduate degree in Psychology. By studying Psychology, I hoped to make sense for myself of my own yearnings and of the many conflicting but inspiring works I had read from psychodynamic, humanistic, existential, and trans-personal psychology/philosophy. I investigated the graduate schools within driving distance that had programs in Psychology, but, to my dismay, the only graduate Psychology program that seemed workable for me was one noted for its behavioral orientation. That program was at Western Michigan University, a one hour drive from my home, and I decided that it was better than nothing.
As a graduate student in Psychology at Western Michigan University, I had to take many classes that reflected the behavior analytical, or Skinnerian, point of view, which was an entirely new approach to Psychology for me. To my astonishment and delight, I found that the philosophy of B. F .Skinner provided a conceptual framework with which I could organize what I had already learned about humanity and from which I could continue to explore in a way that was satisfying to me. A character’s words in Skinner’s Walden Two reflected my own thinking:
You see, we want to do something–we want to find out what’s the matter with people, why they can’t live together without fighting all the time. We want to find out what people really want, what they need in order to be happy, and how they can get it without stealing it from somebody else. (p. 8)
However, life in a community such as Skinner described in Walden Two seemed neither possible nor inviting to me. Instead, it was Skinner’s philosophy that attracted me and provided me with a way to apply Thoreau’s attitude and spirit to a wider nature that includes mankind and its civilizations. I wanted a “utopia” to believe in that didn’t have to leave out anyone on this earth.
My interest in Skinner’s philosophy increased with each new facet to which I was exposed. Particularly, I was fascinated by Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior which enabled me to make sense of my belief in the equality of human beings. I became able to articulate for myself that each of the six billion human beings on this planet is equally valuable and important. I could see that each person is “a locus: a point at which many genetic and environmental conditions come together in a joint effect.” (Skinner, 1974, p. 185.) As such, each person is a unique perspective of the earth, a perspective that cannot be seen except through a person’s own eyes. At the same time, no one can “see” much of the earth unless others share their perspectives with him/her. Like the fabled “blindmen and the elephant”, each perspective is limited but valid; and no complete understanding is possible without the perspective of each “blindman”.
Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior continues to fascinate me. Each time I am confronted with distressing and complex issues of human behavior, I consider them from this different perspective and have been able to make sense of them in a way I couldn’t before. My experience makes me wonder what effect it would have on the world if Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior were widely understood and applied. What follows is a description of the ways that Skinner’s analysis has affected this one person’s life. Hopefully, it will also suggest possibilities for affecting other lives in helpful ways.