Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,—under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are: and of course so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blind-man’s-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new spontaneous word? Do I not know that with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us and we know not where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression. There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean “the foolish face of praise,” the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease, in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved but moved by a low usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face, with the most disagreeable sensation.”
Don’t sacrifice yourself to become one of the herd.
The last thing that I want to be is a spokesman for and follower of something that I don’t believe in, simply because being a part of a tribe gives me comfort. I want to know and live the truth, in whatever situation I find myself, and stand for that.
But I continue to go over “Self-Reliance” with the idea (hope?) that Emerson isn’t saying that we shouldn’t learn from others, and even adopt their position as our own, as long as it vibrates in harmony with our iron string. For example, I’ve picked up things from the Stoics, from the Buddhists, from the Christians, from the 12-Steppers, from ACT/CBT/REBT, even from Phil Stutz and Barry Michaels and their Tools (despite their endorsements from Gwyneth (buy useless stuff from me and stick them in your vagina) Paltrow and Dr. (Really??? Still “Doctor”???) Oz). The number of places I’ve learned the truth, the Truth, and what works for me (those can be three completely different things) from is pretty darn long.
Allowing myself to do this is a much better way to live. I didn’t always. When I realized that the Stoics got a lot of stuff right, I couldn’t allow them to be wrong about anything. Christians expressing love? Then I had to adopt their belief in the Resurrection. My AA sponsor says that I have to believe in God to get and stay sober? Then drop the rationality and believe.
It’s each person’s responsibility to find the best way for them to live. We can learn from others, but don’t be so quick to drink all of their Flavor Aid. Stick with the healthier stuff they offer.
“If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth, by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VI