Self-Reliance (book)

Ralph Waldo Emerson always struck me as cutting to the heart of human weakness: the tendency to ignore the advice coming from our hearts due to the desire to obtain the approval of other people. We are here for a reason, and it is our intuitive voice that will guide us towards our rightful destiny, not the judgements or demands of other people: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”                                                                                                                                                                          Many of my favourite writers talk about the importance of trusting our intuition, and the messages and feelings that support it and which we can pick up on when our eyes are open and our minds are alive. Each of these writers emphasises a different aspect of this. For example, Florence Scovel Shinn wrote extensively on following the leads that one's higher self provides in practical affairs: “The Divine Plan unfolds through following intuition.” Emerson also implores one to listen to that voice within, because for him it is where greatness and genius reside. Of this Emerson notes:

“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.”

Without listening to the intuitive voice within, we will be led down a path designed for another; most often because our doing so is for their psychological or practical benefit not ours. Moreover, when this happens the universe will conspire to get us back on our rightful track with a violence that could have been avoided if we had only trusted what we knew to begin with. Just ask yourself how many times you thought or even exclaimed out loud, ‘I knew I should have done that,’ or, ‘I had a feeling not to do that.’ In these situations we ignored our higher self and its intuitive leads; we violated our purpose to appease the crowd. 

The main issue preventing us from becoming great is, for Emerson, conformity to social demands. Yet, this conformity is rooted in a lack of courage to go with what we know is true. When we lack faith in ourselves we go along with the crowd even when we know deep down they are wrong. History is full of lessons where the crowd got things terribly wrong, and when people stand down from their convictions due to a lack of courage, society inevitably crumbles or turns into something extremely evil. On this Emerson notes:

“Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.” 

The lack of courage to do what we know in our hearts is right can spring from a lack of self-belief, fear of future hardships, and perhaps the worst of all – an excessive concern for what people think about us. There is nothing more psychologically crippling than a great concern for what others think about you. Emerson however tells us over and over again, if we cannot overcome this, we cannot achieve greatness or come anywhere near it. He points to the many examples of historic heavyweights that were ridiculed and persecuted by their peers:

“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” 

Just as Emerson was inspired by the examples of those preceding him, we can turn to Emerson himself as another example of this trend. When researching his work for this piece, I was surprised to discover that his wonderful essay On Nature was at first poorly received, and only read by a small group of his friends and associates. Furthermore, after giving a speech at Harvard Divinity School Emerson was banned from coming back after the crowd was mostly insulted by his interpretation of the Scriptures. It is worth considering that if you are presenting ideas that you know in your heart are true, and are being persecuted for doing so by society at large, you are potentially on the cusp of greatness. Keep pushing through, because eventually the dam will break, and you will be flooded with the waters of success and refreshed by a life of purpose. 

Notwithstanding the above point, Emerson also warns us not to lose our divine spark in the imitation of the great people that came before. It is in the transcendence of past ideas, events and minds that the history-shapers of today emerge. He cuts to the point, exclaiming: 

“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.”

Yes, we learn from history that the masses will try to cut down any flower that bursts through the weeds and begins to bloom too brightly. We can learn a great deal from past writers, painters, musicians and shamans, but our star can only shine when it is truly our own – when its light emanates from within. 

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