Advent and the Different Drummer

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music that he hears, however measured or far away.

Henry Thoreau

This quote hung on the wall of my childhood home. It was the rallying quote of the USC Entrepreneurship program, a program my dad helped to establish within the business school and he supported it until he took a position in Seattle. The logo, a circle of red dots, with one dot placed just outside the circle, adorns the entryway of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies today. I memorized this quote long before I read Thoreau’s Walden. Last month I found the quote that hung on our wall in my mother’s home.


Walden was Thoreau’s manifesto of the individual, the creed of Transcendentalism. All humans have access to divine knowledge, the transcendentalists said. Inasmuch as a philosophy that glorified the individual could have a unifying set of tenants, transcendentalism rejected the use of facts and reason as a test of truth, rejected institutional knowledge and, ironically, gave birth to a renewed social consciousness and activism. Each individual could have direct relationship with God and the natural world – and this philosophy had a profound effect upon education. While Charlotte Mason was grounded in the classics, I would not be surprised if many of her ideas around education as the science of relations and the power of idea and knowledge touched by emotion came directly from Transcendentalist thought.

But this is not where I am going tonight.

Our political era has also been characterized as the most individualistic in the last century. I just finished reading The Once and Future Liberal, a slim book by Mark Lilla. The author posits that our era began in the Reagan years, with the “Reagan Dispensation.” (Which followed the “Roosevelt Dispensation” before it) The first tenant of Reagan Republicanism is that the success of the self-reliant individual “trickles down” to the masses, offering others the opportunity to better themselves in the process. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to one side of the political spectrum. Liberals have taken their individualistic refuge in “identity politics,” where the self is defined by the self and one’s own inclinations.

While we willingly grant our respect to those who identify as feminist, Catholic, gay, trans., black, Latino, hipster or redneck, it isn’t truly easy to step outside our cultural comfort zone. And while we understand that science is flawed like any other human endeavor, we cringe when our President spouts “alternative facts.” Transcendentalists, we are not.

Now I am getting closer to where I want to go with this.

“Children are born Persons,” said Charlotte Mason. Persons, individuals. And, it appears, they can march to the music of a different drummer. No matter how individualistic our society appears there is still the strong pull of the narrative – the one that defines success by a certain path. I once identified with this path, and so I don’t leave it lightly. And while everyone I know and their children are following this path, I feel very alone as we turn away. It is not easy to be the red dot outside the circle.


I have entered an Advent season in my life – appropriate as I found out I was having each child in Advent the year before they were born. Advent is a season of faith. Of waiting. I waited 9 months to meet the child-persons my kids would be, now I am waiting to discover the adult persons they will become. Because my children have taken a path less well worn, less familiar to me, I must strain to hear the music they follow. I don’t know now if I must continue to wait on God’s work in their lives, or if it is my duty to push them in the direction of the drummer. My time to guide their steps is short and I don’t even know where this path goes. All I know, for sure, is that the familiar path is not – despite the narrative – the only one forward. There is no one Christian journey. The Lord is coming to us.

Let them step to the music that they hear, however measured or far away.