Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Do not seek outside yourself.”

That’s the opening line of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the work itself it’s in Latin and in quotes; I don’t know why, and it’s not important right now.

I finally read the full essay over the past week or so, and I’m kicking myself for not putting in the time and effort before this. I was content with being pretentious and throwing out a “hobgoblin of little minds” quote here and there, and never wanted to admit (to myself or others) just how difficult it was for me to get through it, since it was written in the mid 1800’s and the older English could really use some translation.

The essay caused a massive shift in my thinking on just the first reading. Actually, I don’t think that it “caused” it. More like it was a catalyst – when it collided with the thoughts, feelings, and actions of my past it exploded into what feels like a real insight.

So maybe I shouldn’t be kicking myself for not reading the whole thing sooner. The student was ready, and the master appeared.

I’m sure I only understood about 1% of it, so I’ve decided to work my way through it again, slowly, with some real thought put into each section of it, using my own judgement on what constitutes a section, since the damn thing can sometimes seem to be just one long run on sentence, I say as I use one long run on sentence.

I’ve decided that I want to share this publicly, and engage in a discussion with other people who have read it about what we have learned.

I’ll start.

The main thing that the essay as a whole made me realize – I’m way more of a follower than I’d like to admit, mainly in the area of self-help/recovery/personal development. I like to think of myself as a rebel, as someone who won’t participate in the opinion or actions of others unless there’s a damn good reason. Yeah, I’m the type of guy who isn’t into competitive athletics, so he takes pride in using the term “sports ball.”

But when it comes to personal development, I’ve always desperately wanted to find someone to tell me exactly what to do.

Because there’s always been something fundamentally wrong with me that needed fixing.

I wanted step by step, A to B to C instructions on how to fix whatever it was that wasn’t like other people.

I’d jump from one philosophy, religion, therapy, and/or self-help method (ranging from “The Secret” to “scientifically validated practices”) to another, telling myself that I wanted to “get better.” That’s partially true, and some of the things that I’ve found have helped me to become a better person. But under it all was a basic belief:

“I’m a fundamentally and irreparably flawed human being.”

It was one particular passage from Self-Reliance that, in an instant, destroyed that belief. It’ll probably come back sooner rather than later, but that’s OK. I’ll do my best to keep reminding myself of it, and recognize that my forgetting/remembering/forgetting/remembering is just another expression of who I am.

I’m not going to tell you what that passage is for now – we’ll get to it, and I’ll reveal exactly which one it was when we do.

So… to recap. On a somewhat regular basis (I’m not going to commit to how often) I’ll post the next portion of the essay, write out my thoughts on it, and hopefully you will share your own thoughts in the comments section.

We’ve already got the first “section”, quoted above:

“Do not seek outside yourself.”

I’ve already hashed out my own thoughts on that, but I would like to add that I don’t think it means “don’t learn from others.” If it did, this whole project would be both ironic and ridiculous. I’m taking it as “don’t try to live someone else’s life. Accept your individuality and live from there.”

It’s your turn. What does “Do not seek outside yourself” mean to you?

[Ralph Waldo Emerson image by User:Scewing derivative work: 2009 – Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857.jpg, Public Domain, Link]

 

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