Five dead people to follow in 2012

Browse the self-help shelves of your local book store and you’ll spot that most titles draw on psychology, philosophy and religion for their wisdom. But there is one realm where few of them have sought inspiration: history.

When asking the big questions about life, love, work and death, we sometimes forget that people have been grappling with these issues for centuries – and that means we’re missing out. As Goethe put it, ‘he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth’.

So how can characters from history help lead our lives in new directions in 2012? Here’s my personal selection of five icons from the past who offer good ideas for better living.

1.Matsuo Basho: make an alternative pilgrimage

The seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho was a compulsive wanderer who reinvented the art of travel. On one of his pilgrimages, lasting over two years, he naturally visited the holiest Buddhist shrines. But his originality was also to make pilgrimages to non-religious sites that held deep personal meaning for him, such as seeking out the willow trees described by his favourite poets.

The lesson for today? Instead of dedicating your next vacation to getting a tan, make a personal pilgrimage, heading for somewhere that resonates with meaning in your life. Maybe the village where your grandmother was born – see the streets she played in as a child, talk to those who knew her. And if you want the full Basho experience, make sure you walk there in a pair of straw sandals.

2.Henry David Thoreau: experiment with simple living

The American naturalist Henry David Thoreau was incensed by the growing commercialism of his age, so in the 1840s he went off to live alone in the Massachusetts woods in a log cabin built with his own hands. As part of his adventure in self-sufficiency, Thoreau grew beans, potatoes, and corn, and spent his days reading, writing and observing the beauties of nature. ‘A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,’ he concluded in Walden.

Thoreau believed that if you can live cheaply, then you won’t need to work so much, granting you the sublime gift of free time. So try this. For one month keep detailed accounts of all your expenses, classifying each purchase as a ‘need’ or a ‘want’, and in the following month attempt to halve what you spend on wants. You might feel surprisingly liberated because if you can save money, you can create time.

3.Helen Keller: create a sensory map

In 1900 Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind person ever to graduate from a university. Her writings display an extraordinary sensitivity to everything around her. ‘My world is built of touch-sensations,’ she wrote, ‘the velvet of the rose is not that of a ripe peach or of a baby’s dimpled cheek’. She could even recognise all her friends instantly by their smell. And she thought most sighted people failed to put their senses to full use – ‘when they look at things, they put their hands in their pockets.’

The message from her life is to rediscover our sensory selves, cultivating neglected senses such as touch, smell or hearing. Why not create a sensory map of your local neighbourhood and go exploring? Seek out the medieval scent of smoked fish in the market or, eyes shut, feel the contours of a sculpture in the park.

4.Claiborne Paul Ellis: challenge a belief

Born into a poor white family in North Carolina in 1924, C.P. Ellis became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1971 he attended a community meeting and was forced to work alongside black civil rights activist Ann Atwater. He was shocked to discover how much they had in common, from the oppression of poverty to family struggles. It exploded his prejudices about black people. He tore up his KKK membership card in front of a thousand onlookers. They were friends for the rest of their lives.

Challenging our beliefs and prejudices is one of the best ways to live on the edge. Have a conversation with a stranger once a week, especially the kind of person you think you don’t like. Try to see the world through their eyes, and imagine how you must look to them.

5.Mary Wollstonecraft: take to the streets

The eighteenth-century feminist firebrand and writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was an expert at breaking social conventions. She embarked on a career as an author when almost no women did so, went to Paris during the revolution, and had scandalous affairs and a child out of wedlock. Hers was a life of experiment, and one that should inspire us take risks and challenge the rules.

She also saw that the art of living calls on us to get politics into the bloodstream. So she would be sure to support the idea that at least once this coming year, we should all take to the streets in an act of political protest or civil disobedience, be it marching against hospital cuts or joining the struggle to combat climate change. Don’t watch from the sidelines: be a political player.

So let icons be icons – these figures from history are waiting to lead you into a 2012 with a difference.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post and is based on my new book The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live.

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