Category Archives: Self-Reliance

“I Don’t Care What They Think!” : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 014

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend’s parlor. If this aversion had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and the college. It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid, as being very vulnerable themselves. But when to their feminine rage the indignation of the people is added, when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.”

You can’t avoid it – other people aren’t going to like it when you are different from the herd. There’s gonna be pushback – sometimes a whole lot of pushback.

And let’s be honest – it can hurt. Most people who say that they don’t care what other people think of them are either lying or not very self-aware. It’s built into our DNA to care what others think. It takes real practice to be free from the tyranny of other people’s opinions.

I’ve been watching a television show called “Catastrophe“. In one scene, a main character goes to dinner with an old boyfriend behind her current boyfriend’s back. She admits to it, and her current boyfriend asks if she still has feelings for him. “Oh, God No!” she says. “I just wanted him to still like me.”

“I get it,” he says. “I’ve got a Facebook account.”

This one really struck me, because I recently went dark on both my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I’m not saying that they don’t have their uses – but when the main purpose is self validation, and we find ourselves obsessing about what others think of our lives (or our blog posts, as a completely made up, random example) rather than using them to get information, share our gifts, and really connect with people… maybe it’s time to take a break.

We aren’t looking for perfection here, but maybe just a bit of working on unhooking from the opinion of others, no matter how dire their faces or excited in their praise they are, will go a long way towards helping us become who we want to be.

The Truth : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 013

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


Fuck (most of) ‘Em : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 012

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Everyone is going to have an opinion about the way you are living.

Fuck (most of) ’em. Learning from those whose opinion you value is a good thing – but 99% of the time, what others think of how you live is worthless.

Your decisions on how to live are the only ones that ultimately matter, because you are the only one who has to live your life.

But as Emerson says, you have to live it – all the time. It’s easy to live it in private, or when we are in a position where we don’t have to actually *do* anything. I’m usually guilty of this laying in bed at night. Tomorrow once the alarm goes off I’m gonna jump out of bed, meditate, write, be kind to others throughout the day, do my best at work… and bam! The alarm goes off and the first thing I do is open up Facebook or Twitter on my phone, end up not having time to meditate or write, scream at people from my car on the way to work, and do a shitty job because for some damn reason (I wonder what it could be???) I’m tired, unmotivated, angry, and depressed (piece of crap didn’t do what he said he’s do AGAIN!).

But one of my other personal values is improvement. Not the end goal (there is no end goal), but progress toward it. It’s a process, one I’m willing to go through, fail at, and go through again.


Don’t Apologize for Who You Are : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 011

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.”

“Their virtues are penances.”

You don’t have to do anything to justify your existence. You are what you are, and that’s OK.

Unless, of course, you want to be something or someone different. That’s OK too – as long as you are working on becoming that someone/something because you want to, and not because you think that you’re deficient in any way.

Do you have to have the approval of others? Sometimes. For example, we wage slaves have to have the approval of a boss. But in that case, do you want that approval because of the work that you do? Or because of who you are?

I created the tagline for this site (Accepting Who You Are – Becoming Who You Want To Be) for a specific reason – it’s the only way for me to live. There are lots of things I want to be, from a kinder, more generous person, to someone who has strength for two, to someone who has the material means to be as valuable as I can to (or at least not a drain on) the world. I’ve wanted those things for a long time, but until I could accept myself, exactly as I am in this moment, I was stuck. A person who hates themselves believes that they deserve nothing, and no matter how much they try, that deep down feeling of “not good enough” will be an insurmountable obstacle to any lasting progress.

I don’t feel this way (most of the time) anymore. I seem to be making the progress that I deserve to make.

I’m saying this not to toot my own horn, but to encourage you to do the same. It is possible to make progress – I know this because I have.

I’m not putting out that bullshit that “If I can do it you can to.” We’ll do it differently, because our iron strings are different. And thank god for that.

You have no penance to perform.

Accept who you are. Become who you want to be.

Virtue Signaling : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 010

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, —else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; —though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

This is a study, not a race.

There hasn’t been an entry added to this series in a couple of weeks. I had a really hard time with this particular section, and wasn’t sure if I could, or even wanted, to continue.

I (thought) I disagreed with it so much, that I was ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as I’m wont to do (wont to do??? WTF, now I’m writing like Emerson…)

I didn’t want to do that, so the plan was to simply write “Disagree” and move one so I could get past the bottleneck that my brain was causing.

The idea that

“Thy love afar is spite at home.”

is bullshit. We can be concerned with the well being of others if they are suffering on the other side the world or in our own backyard – to be callous to that fact is to violate one of the principles that I hold dear, that of cosmopolitanism.

And the rest of the passage seemed to be just another expression of “Fuck y’all, imma get what’s mine.”

But upon rereading for the umpteenth time time this morning, I realized I had glossed over one of the first, and most important, lines of this section:

“If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass?”

Holy shit, he’s talking about virtue signaling – expressing your concern for a worthy cause in order to look good; making a show of your “righteousness” so that people will give you props.

Sonofabitch – he’s right again. I just couldn’t see it when I first read it, because I didn’t really read it.

It makes me think of when I’m at the grocery store, and the little box pops up asking me to donate a buck or two to Tom Brady’s latest charity. I always do it – not because I give a shit about the cause, but because I want the cashier (a complete stranger) to think that I’m a good person.

Even now, I think that I may be virtue signaling in a strange way – “Oh, look how humble he is, he can admit publicly when he’s wrong. Here, Lyman, have a cookie.”

Ahhhh…. acceptance by my tribe, even if it’s only imagined. That’s a nice hit of dopamine right there.

I’ve got some real work to do.

“Oh, look at him, so willing to do what’s necessary to become a better human being. Here Lyman, have a cookie.”


Or maybe I’m not. I’m writing about it to explore it, and sharing it to ask for discussion and constructive criticism is a way of changing.

But I still want my damn cookie.


Whatever, I Do What I Want : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 009

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,— “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right.

If you are following along with this, you’ll notice that I had to break up this paragraph. Way too much for me to give it a good and honest study otherwise.

“He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.”

This was mentioned in a previous post – just because something is said to be right doesn’t make it right.

But I wanted to stress it again – no matter what others think of an idea or an action, if you think that it’s right, do it. If you think that it’s wrong, don’t do it. Dance to the music of your own Iron String.


“Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

There’s a question that has to be asked of every action in life – “What would happen if everyone did this?” It bugs me that sometimes Emerson comes across as a “Whatever, I do what I want!” kind of guy.

What would happen if everyone decided to just “do what they want?” It reminds me of one of the ridiculous arguments against atheism – “If you don’t believe in God, what’s stopping you from raping and murdering and stealing whenever you want to?”

The best answer I’ve heard to that comes from the Ricky Gervaise Netflix show “Afterlife” – I do rape and murder and steal all that I want – which is zero times.

Yet people rape and murder and steal all the time, irregardless (sorry, but I like that word) of their belief in God. I think that there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Our most basic survival instincts kick in, and at the moment of the raping and murdering and stealing, those seem more important to us that the welfare of our fellow human beings.
  2. We group ourselves into tribes, and members of the other tribe aren’t seen as human. Since we don’t see them as a part of our society, we aren’t harming ourselves by harming them.

(Of course, these aren’t my ideas, but I’ve bought into them.)

Solutions? I can only think of one. Education. Education in cosmopolitanism. Education in the fact that we are all connected, not in a woo-woo spiritual way, but in a very real, what happens to you affects me way, even if we can’t see that in the moment of acting on our most primitive urges.

(By the way, having an urge isn’t the same thing as wanting to do something. Those of us with serious, destructive addictions and/or mental health issues should understand that. Actually everyone should understand that, but I’ll save a discussion on the importance of unconditional self acceptance and compassion for ourselves and others for another time.)

For those who are unable or unwilling to control those urges – punishment isn’t the answer, but they should be removed from society in order to protect others, and be evaluated regularly to determine if reentry is safe.

This is my long winded way of saying that, while most people can get along just fine with the brand of self reliance that Emerson espouses, there are exceptions. We’ve got to find that middle way between totalitarianism and individual freedom. It’s messy, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep working toward it.

My own personal philosophy is this – if it ain’t hurting no one, and you believe it is right, go for it. Let fucking loose, and continue to live life the way that you see fit. I’m still working on it, but I think I’m making progress.

Be self reliant, consider others, and “carry [yourself] in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but [you].”


Intentions In Private Vs. Actions In Public : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 008

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”

We like predictability. We want to know how people around us are going to act. Without certainty, there’s threat.

These are the reasons that we join our tribes, often unconsciously – we want people around us who think like us, act like us, even look like us. This way we can easily and accurately predict what they will say and how they will act.

This provides us with a perception of safety and security. Maslow said that these are basic needs of human beings.

Not that all groupthink is wrong. But often it is. Slavery, rape, racism – in the past, these were all considered OK, even good. In some circles, they disgustingly still are. If it wasn’t for people who stood up and said “Hey, that’s fucked up, cut that shit out.” we’d probably still accept these actions and ideas as acceptable.

In my opinion, Emerson isn’t telling us to be different for the sake of being different. He’s telling us to not do something just because the crowd is doing it. Even if the majority is doing something, it doesn’t mean it’s right. One person can be right while the whole world is wrong.

It’s people who listen to the music of their own iron string and dance in public that change the world. What you contemplate in private is important for preparation for living, but it don’t mean jack if you live like everyone else in public.

WWDD : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 007

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.”

I think what he’s saying here, once again, is to not worry so much about what others think. This time he’s specifically referring to those of a higher socioeconomic status. It reminds me of the story of Diogenes the Cynic philosopher and Alexander the Great:

“Thereupon many statesmen and philosophers came to Alexander with their congratulations, and he expected that Diogenes of Sinope also, who was tarrying in Corinth, would do likewise. But since that philosopher took not the slightest notice of Alexander, and continued to enjoy his leisure in the suburb Craneion, Alexander went in person to see him; and he found him lying in the sun. Diogenes raised himself up a little when he saw so many people coming towards him, and fixed his eyes upon Alexander. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked if he wanted anything, “Yes,” said Diogenes, “stand a little out of my sun.” It is said that Alexander was so struck by this, and admired so much the haughtiness and grandeur of the man who had nothing but scorn for him, that he said to his followers, who were laughing and jesting about the philosopher as they went away, “But truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.” and Diogenes replied “If I wasn’t Diogenes, I would be wishing to be Diogenes too.” (via Wikipedia)

Of course, I don’t plan to start jacking it in public like Diogenes did, but he and his fellow Cynics really had something to teach us – the art of Self-Reliance.

Further along, Emerson tells us that once “you do you” in a spectacular way, there’s really no going back to the life that you had before:

“As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe [a way of forgetting] for this.”

Self-Reliance isn’t for the faint of heart. But at the same time we don’t have to go full throttle out of the gate. There’s nothing wrong with contemplation, testing the waters, and coming to a decision based on reason *and* emotion.

But don’t let the guiding emotion be fear, and don’t let the guiding reason be the opinion of others.


Living Like a Brute : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 006

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“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.

What are your thoughts on this?


Waves on the Ocean : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 005

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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.

Since I wasn’t sure what he meant by an “iron string”, I looked it up online (what an amazing time we live in), and found the following resource:

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.

Be the wave that you are.