“What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text, in the face and behaviour of children, babes, and even brutes! That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.”
This was another difficult one for me. I think he’s saying that there are times to stop doubting and start living – who cares if the odds that “our arithmetic has computed” are against us… live! Do what’s in your heart, like a baby, like a teenager, even like a “brute” (could mean an animal, could mean a person who just does what he wants regardless of the consequences).
Sorry Ralph Waldo, but I’m not all in here. Not all of my passions are constructive. Yes, there’s a time for letting it all hang out. I could learn a lot about taking risks. But we have our reason for a reason, and I don’t want to live like a brute anymore.
Human beings were “built” to live together. And if the music of my iron string tells me that it’s OK to do what I want, when I want, regardless of the consequences to others (either those close to me or any of the other countless organisms out there), then that music must be turned off.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
Then I thought to myself… well, duh. The “that” that he refers to is trust in oneself. So the iron string is trust in oneself. Iron because it’s strong, string because it’s beautiful music, vibrating with life.
Why did the greats become great by trusting themselves? Because they knew (either consciously or subconsciously) that a power greater than themselves was working through them – that power being the universe.
We are all waves on the ocean of the universe. Not the whole universe, but a legitimate part that it wouldn’t be the same without.
But… at the same time, we are all the same. There are actually more similarities than differences. These similarities cross all sorts of lines: race, gender, class, intellectual ability, sexual orientation, even species. More and more, we are seeing just how similar all of life is.
That’s a good thing. Without our “sameness”, we wouldn’t be able to cooperate. Without the understanding that we all basically want the same things – to survive, to thrive, to be happy – we would never have gotten beyond life in the jungle and the caves.
Different people have different strategies, some constructive and some destructive, but they are all intended toward those same ends – survival, thriving, happiness.
Some of us have strategies that are based on the differences, geared toward the destruction (or at the very least separation) of themselves from others. This can happen on a small scale, like when I just want the person across the hall in my apartment building to leave me alone. This can happen on a large scale, when one group has decided that the best thing for them is to wipe out all of those who are different.
This is a really crappy strategy. It may allow for survival in the short term, but a closed system cannot grow, and will break down once a new survival strategy is needed.
Others do it differently. They open themselves up to others, learn about them, cooperate with them, and love them. This is how we grow as a race, as a gender, as a group with a sexual orientation, as those blessed with intelligence, as a class, or as a species.
In the society that I live in (and much of the world), power has been concentrated in the hands of a certain combination of the things I listed above: the white, cisgender male, straight, intelligent, upper class, financially well off human being. The way that they came to and stayed in power was by using a combination of the two strategies – taking what they needed from the other groups while keeping their boots on their necks.
Me? I fall into four out of six of those “power categories”. I recognize that because I do, if life were a video game, I’d be playing on easy-mode (not my concept – and I really wish I could find my source for that idea).
This isn’t a single player game. It’s massive, it’s multiplayer, and we’re all on the same team. People like me, no matter how much they feel like they are losing when someone in another group gets something, really aren’t, and it’s my responsibility to use what I have to help my overall team – not just those who are “like me”, but all of them.
This isn’t some benevolent version of the White Man’s Burden. It’s a recognition of the privilege I’ve been given and my desire to walk hand in hand with my team – all of the residents of this Pale Blue Dot.
At the very least, I can stay out of their way.
You aren’t so different from “the others”. You aren’t an alien. The fact that you can read this tells us that we are more like each other than we can ever understand.
I had a huge misconception of what Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson is about. As I go through it, I’m leaning that self-reliance isn’t about being “self-made” or “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” or “doing it on your own.” We Americans still seem to really love to look up to people that we think have done this, but guess what. No one ever has been, and no one ever will be, a self made person.
Back in 2012, President Barack Obama got a lot of shit for his “you didn’t build that” statements on the campaign trail for his re-election. But of course, in our five second soundbite, attention deficient society, his detractors either deliberately left out the context, didn’t understand it, or just didn’t care.
My best understanding of what he was saying is: You didn’t build that alone. You had help, and it’s your responsibility to share the rewards of the effort that everyone involved put into it.
No one builds anything worthwhile alone. As a matter of fact, no one can survive as a self contained unit. Get yourself shot into space on your own and you’ll see just how much you take for granted that you need to survive, never mind thrive.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if Emerson hadn’t written Self-Reliance in the first place.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if someone hadn’t taught me how to read and write.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if someone hadn’t fed, clothed, and protected me before I could do that myself.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if someone hadn’t invented language.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if I wan’t born with a (somewhat) functioning brain.
Those few statements barely scratch the surface. We could go so deep into the rabbit hole of all of the things that must come together to allow us to do the things we are doing now we’d never climb out of it.
At the same time – you, and only you, are in a unique situation put together by those very same circumstances that were beyond your control.
The self-reliance that Emerson is talking about is having enough trust in yourself to use those absolutely unique, 100% original circumstances, skills, and interests as only you can.
Imitation is fine for learning a skill, and there’s nothing wrong with using it as a tool… but when you come up with a better hammer, don’t keep pounding away with the old one just because you are terrified of what others will think of you when they see you trying the new one.
You may not be as famous as Emerson. Maybe you’re the person who lets someone take a left in front of them during rush hour. Maybe you’re the person who lifts someone up when life has smacked them down hard. Maybe you’re the person who leads the march for positive change. Maybe you’re the person who participates in the march – without the marchers, the leaders are useless.
You know what you are here to do. You have a “passion”. It may not be “rah rah” passion – but it’s a love of something, and it’s there despite years of burying it. It’s not just a dream – it’s a mission, and only you can accomplish it.
If you don’t think that you know what you are here to do, you’re probably lying to yourself. That’s OK… I did that for years myself – still do sometimes. This shit ain’t easy – putting yourself out there, even to yourself, is fucking terrifying.
It doesn’t even have to be well defined at this point. It can be messy as hell (it will be messy as hell) while you stumble around. That’s OK too.
And if you still “don’t know” what it is – I’ll break a rule here and tell you what to do:
Get started. Keep moving. We need you, and we can’t wait anymore.
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.”
Again… it’s all about trusting in your own uniqueness, and that expressing your uniqueness is important. It’s vital that you be you. There is not, and never will be, another you. Please don’t rob us of you.
“Imitation is suicide.”
Literally. When you imitate another for the sake of acceptance, you are killing the one thing that you can offer the world.
“…toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
But it won’t be easy. We are programmed by evolution to be like the others in our group. Being ostracized by one’s tribe meant certain death. Not so much nowadays, but the fear of it is still very much a part of our brains. Accept the fear and anxiety as a gift from your mind; it’s just trying to protect you. Then take action toward adding the value that only you can add to the universe.
“The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
You’ll sometimes hear personal development gurus talk about your “infinite potential.” That’s a load of horseshit. We all have our limits.
“This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.”
No one but you perceives the world like you do. Use that.
“God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”
I’m not sure who first said it, but remember: Courage is not the absence of fear – it’s taking action despite your fear. Usually, just taking action will alleviate the fear, but don’t count on that. Have courage, take action, and you’ll begin to live the life that only you can.
“It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.”
This supposed deliverance? It’s the television, it’s the cigarette, it’s the alcohol, it’s the sex, it’s the imitation of others, it’s whatever you use to escape the pain of taking action and being you. It may kill the pain for a while, but there is no long term solution other than seeing clearly and taking the action only you can take.
What are your thoughts on this? I’d like to hear what only you can say.
“I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, —that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility than most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
Three words – Stop Dismissing Yourself.
You, and only you, have something unique to offer the world. No one else can do this thing, whatever it is, in the same way that you can. Until you find an exact copy of yourself (which you never will), you will never find anyone else who can make the same contributions to the world that you can, in the same way that you can.
“But how do I know what that contribution should be???”
Your own brain will tell you. It takes your genetics, combines them with your experiences, and begins to tell you, with “that gleam of light which flashes across [your] mind from within”, just what it is you are here to do.
Someone else might have a very similar gleam, and if you don’t take action on yours, they just might beat you too it!
Funny story – my wife Tracy insists that she came up with the idea for “Like A Surgeon” well before “Weird Al” Yankovic did. Knowing her, I believe it. As a matter of fact, her brother called her on the phone one day to tell her that he was listening to “her” song on the radio (maybe watching the video? I can’t really remember).
But Tracy’s gleam was still different from Al’s. Musical parody isn’t her path, and the contributions she makes to the world are massive in their own way. The point isn’t to follow every impulse all the way to releasing a hit song. It can be adding a bit of joy to the world among her circle of friends. But she could have said nothing, not mentioned the idea, and robbed her people of a bit of laughter.
When we do this, it creates ripples of joy further out than we could ever imagine.
The next time you notice that gleam, don’t hold it back – express it in whatever way feels right. Not good, but right.
“Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
And so again:
Stop Dismissing Yourself.
That includes that comment that you want to write below. 🙂
Emerson wants us to throw this child on the rocks, have them be nourished by a wolf, and survive the most difficult time of the year with a hawk and a fox.
WTF Ralph Waldo… Dr. Spock would not have approved.
But I don’t think Emerson is giving parenting advice here. Self-Reliance is about us, and how we can live our best lives. I think that the “child” he’s talking about is that part of ourselves that needs to grow up.
Maybe a better way to put it is “Chase after pain in order to gain.” Don’t just allow it – chase it. Cast the bantling on purpose. Find a she wolf and grow with it – on purpose. Dive at your targets like a hawk, and use your wits like a fox.
Another idea that came to mind is – “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” That’s from G. Michael Hopf (according to Goodreads)
In my culture, it seems like the strong men of the past (like Emerson) created some really goods times for a lot of us (not all, but we’re working on that.) Ease, comfort, and prosperity were handed to so many of us (myself included) that we became weak… myself included.
Weak like little bantlings. Myself included.
I don’t want to be that anymore. I’m slowly learning to cast my inner bantling and get a little bit better every day. Well, not every day (it still needs work), but more days than not.
Learn with me.
Learn to Bring It On.
Learn to take the path of most resistance.
Maybe Emerson didn’t mean any of this – I’m not enough of a scholar to know.
But I do know that I want to become one of those strong people who create good times – and maybe even help in breaking the cycle of creating weak people.
I also hope that others will join me. But I can’t control that – it’s about Self-Reliance, and all I can do is live my own path.
Thoughts? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.
“Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.”
The first thing that struck me in this quoted passage at the beginning of Self-Reliance was the line: “Nothing to him falls early or too late.”
I immediately thought of acceptance (maybe even a bit of Amor Fati) – the idea of equanimity, or even joy, in the face of whatever life hands us (or we hand to ourselves).
Acceptance is not passivity. It’s not resignation. It’s a recognition of the fact that things are what they are right now.
I first learned about acceptance in Alcoholics Anonymous. There’s a popular passage in their Big Book (pg. 417 of the 4th Edition) that starts off with “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.”
The author goes on to say that we can’t find peace until we can accept everything.
I both agree and disagree. If the problem is “lack of serenity” (I’d prefer the term “equanimity”), then yes, acceptance is the answer.
But acceptance isn’t the answer to all of my problems. Acceptance won’t pay my bills. Acceptance won’t provide the medical help I need for my Bipolar Disorder. Acceptance won’t even stop me from drinking if I’ve got a problem with it.
But acceptance will:
allow me to face the reality of my bills and create a plan to get them paid
put me in a position to recognize my illness and find a doctor and a way to pay for her and my medication
help me to admit that I have a problem with alcohol and seek help
So no, not the answer, but the beginning of all answers, because it defines and clarifies the question of what the problem is in the first place.
Dr. Hayes says that we can look at acceptance from the perspective of “accepting a gift.”
People often talk about taking action “despite” something, as in I’m going to work on getting these bills paid “despite” being unemployed, or I’m going to get to work today “despite” my symptoms kicking up, or I’m going to not drink today “despite” the cravings.
What if by accepting these things (bills, depression, cravings, whatever your demon is) as gifts instead of obstacles, we could live our best lives? Not in spite of, but because of.
Amor Fati just may be possible, and for the person who practices it…
Nothing comes too early or too late.
I’d love to here your thoughts! Let’s get a conversation going in the comments section below.
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.
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?
The saying that has been on there for the longest now (and still my favorite) is:
“Who Are You Becoming.”
I got the idea from Atomic Habits by James Clear. One of the main points of the book is that everything we do is a vote for the kind of person we want to become.
Smoke a cigarette? That’s a vote for being someone who doesn’t care about their well being.
Go for a run? You are voting for being someone who lives a healthy lifestyle.
Short with your spouse? Voting yourself into being a shitty life partner.
Tackle a project you aren’t sure you’re up to? You just got a vote for living a courageous life.
Beating up on yourself or ruminating on smoking a cigarette or being short with your spouse? Now you’re voting for being someone who spends more time thinking about shit than doing something about said shit.
You get the idea.
This stuff is easy to forget, which is why the reminder app helps. But even that has it’s problems – it’s so easy to just swipe away the notification, rather than spend 5 seconds thinking about what we are voting for in the moment. Of course, doing that is a vote for becoming someone who would rather go through the personal development motions than actually apply this stuff. (doh!)
Here’s the cool thing: it’s like voting in Chicago. You get to do it early and often. You get as many votes as you want. As a matter of fact, you can’t help but vote over and over and over again.
Whatever you are doing right now is a vote for being the person that you are right now. If you’re cool with that – great! If not, you get to vote differently right now. And now. And now.
It’s a few hours later and I was just thinking about this post – I think it slanted a bit too much to the “If you aren’t voting for who you want to be, change it!” side. I didn’t highlight the other side of the coin enough – when you catch yourself voting for who you do want to be. When that happens, make sure that you give your brain a good “That’s Like Me!“. It’ll help you remember to vote the way you really want to the next time.