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excerpt from: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
As a young man, Emerson pursued a formal education at Harvard Divinity School because he thought he wanted to enter the ministry. Eventually, he became an assistant pastor at Second Church in Boston. Although well-loved by his congregation, Emerson became disenchanted with certain aspects of the institutionalized church. During this time period, his young wife Ellen died, only 18 months into their marriage. Emerson mourned Ellen deeply, even to the point of having her grave opened some months later. Like much that he did in life, Emerson did not want to take death for granted; he wanted to see it with his own eyes.
Before he turned 30, Emerson had already lost his wife, his father (who died when he was 8), his job, a steady income, and prospects for a bright future. His mother became so worried about Waldo (as Emerson liked to be called) that she asked his invalid brother Edward, living in the West Indies, to consider coming home to care for him.
As he would throughout his life, Emerson turned to writing, and began to express his thoughts on individualism, transcendence, and human possibility. Initially viscerated for his views by scholars and religious leaders of the time, Emerson eventually garnered critical acclaim and a wide audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of Emerson’s writings are filled with a bouncing optimism and an underpinning belief that God is a positive force who exists in each of us. Emerson was convinced of the uniqueness of the individual and the ecstasy of being human.
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm (essay on Circles, 1841).
Last year I received a job offer in Colorado in a town that happened to be one of my favorite places on earth. At the time I was working in Texas, making the best money of my career and having a lot of fun. I was happy, but I was drawn to the wild mountains; blue sky; pure rivers; and endless, unexplored hiking trails. If I took the job in Colorado, it would mean a pay cut and a potentially disastrous move down the career ladder. However, if I stayed in Texas, I would never get to find out what it meant to live in the place of my dreams. I didn’t know what to do.
I decided to take a walk and think about it. Because there are no woods where I lived, I settled for a long bicycle ride on the dry, dusty plains. As I rode my bike, I mulled over the advantages and disadvantages of moving. As I rode, my mind filled with the words of Emerson. “Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call” (essay on Spiritual Laws, 1841).
Despite Emerson’s words pounding a refrain in my head, I found myself resisting the prospect of change—the move would be too drastic, too illogical. I began thinking about how much I liked the weather, the friendliness of my co-workers, the lack of a state income tax, and the proximity to my mother and father who live nearby. Also, for the first time in my life, I had reached a salary level where I no longer had to fret over every penny. After a while, my rational mind really started to take over and I began to wonder why the heck anyone would ever want to move from Texas…ever. Obviously, it was a perfect paradise and I simply could not afford to commit career hara-kiri by taking a reduction in salary in exchange for some pipedream.
At the precise moment when I had come to the conclusion that only a fool would ever dare to leave this utopia, the front tire on my bike exploded. I reacted instinctively by squeezing my brakes, which rocketed me out of my seat, head over handlebars, through the air. I could hear my bike crash just before I slammed against the ground in a hard, dusty belly-flop. Of course, it could have been a nail in my tire, but I took it to be a sign from God. I think Emerson would have agreed. “Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure” (essay on Nature, 1844). In the end, I went with my gut feeling and took the job in Colorado.
Undeniably, Emerson has been a tremendous influence on the choices that I have made in my life. Whenever I am confronted by grief, overwhelming negativity, or apathy, I often respond by asking myself, “What would Emerson do?” Emerson’s writings are permeated with altruism, faith, and—most of all—hope. To Emerson, all things are possible, given sufficient time and enthusiasm. “A snowflake will go through a pine board, if projected with force enough” (Emerson, cited in Richardson 1995, 437).
Emerson loved the out of doors and he took frequent hikes, sometimes stretching to several miles over a period of days. He loved to walk in the woods by himself as a way of clearing his mind, but he also liked to walk and talk with friends. In his life, he walked with Carlyle, John Muir, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller, Jones Very, Henry David Thoreau, Henry James, William Wordsworth, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and innumerable others. Once he went on a walk of many hours with Walt Whitman to try to convince him to tone down the sexual innuendo of “Leaves of Grass.”
Emerson believed that being in nature was a way of communing with God. “In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth” (essay on Nature, 1836).
As a parent, Emerson never forbade or ordered. Instead, he tried to reason with his children by reviewing the facts of the situation and discussing some possible options. He allowed his children to make their own decisions from there. If one of his children were upset at the dinner table, he would ask them to go outside and see about a cloud formation. He believed that Nature would be enough on its own to soothe their troubles.
Being alone in nature is a necessary ritual that allows an individual to come back into balance with the world. “If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime” (essay on Nature, 1836).
Emerson realized that each day was a precious gift not to be squandered. A life filled with meaning, in which we push ourselves to reach our potential, where we act upon our beliefs and trust our intuition, without concern for popular opinion or looking cool—that is the life worth pursuing. “To fill the hour, that is happiness—to fill the hour and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval. We live amidst surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them” (essay on Experience, 1841).
Believing that he was destined to take his place among the literary and philosophical giants whom he so admired, Emerson’s ambition was not born out of a lust for reputation but one of transcendence—he simply wanted to create something of enduring value. As an audacious youth, he journeyed to Europe to meet his heroes face-to-face. The equivalent of dropping by the homes of Tom Wolfe, J. D. Salinger, and Toni Morrison unannounced, Emerson gained entrance through the doors of some of the world’s most eminent men and women, though he had no reputation or title at the time.
As much as Emerson admired thinkers from the past, he knew that to make his own mark, he had to heed his own compass. “Make your own Bible,” he wrote on July 21, 1836. For Emerson, every day held the possibility for a new revelation; every moment a new idea. But, these possibilities were the domain of the individual who possessed the courage and confidence to achieve them. “Insist on yourself; never imitate” (essay on Self-Reliance, 1841).
Once you have come to understand your true self and have grown confident in your identity, then you must dedicate yourself to pursuing your dreams without fear of failure or reprisal. “When you have chosen your part…do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world. The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic….It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person—‘Always do what you are afraid to do’” (essay on Heroism, 1841).
The key to greatness, Emerson felt, was getting in touch with your true self. He assumed that awakening the soul and becoming attuned to your unique talents were essential to the good life. “Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity” (Harvard Divinity Address, 1838).
Dreams are thwarted when you fail to assert your individuality, you shrink from the truth, or you allow others to take control of your life. “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think….You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it” (essay on Self-Reliance, 1841).
We gain experience by opening up our lives to the world of ideas. For Emerson, books were precious guideposts for thought and action. He was particularly fond of Goethe, Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, and Carlyle. He often said that Montaigne’s Essays was the most influential book in his life. But, he didn’t care much for the works of Dickens (too much description). He managed to commit many poems to memory and could recite Milton’s Lycidas well into old age. Emerson read widely and deeply. When asked if he ever read an irrelevant book, Emerson replied that, if he encountered one, he would read it more deeply and more deeply until it became relevant.
Although reading is vital, reading by itself does not optimize creativity. We can read, teach, or write about the deeds of others; but if we settle for that, we do not contribute much to future generations. To live fully, we must follow our own path and create our own books. “We will walk on our own feet, we will work with our own hands, we will speak with our own minds” (American Scholar address at Harvard, 1837).
Emerson was never content to sit still. From entries in his journal when he was almost 70, we know that he still became very excited about ideas and learning—about everything from the sciences to Shakespeare. Emerson wrote, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them” (essay on Circles, 1841).
The striving to be a great man led Emerson to make the most of his time. The notion that life should not be used to pursue meaningless leisure pursuits is evident in his earliest writing. Emerson notes that Francis Bacon, Milton, Martin Luther, and Isaac Newton might just as easily have done nothing had they not persevered towards their aims with unbounded determination.
Baker, C. 1996. Emerson Among the Eccentrics. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Derleth, A. 1970. Emerson, Our Contemporary. New York: MacMillan.
Emerson, R. W. 1926. The Heart of Emerson’s Journals (Bliss Perry, Ed. Reprinted unabridged in 1995). New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.
Emerson, R. W. 2000. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Modern Library.
Emerson, R. W. 1982. Emerson in his Journals (Joel Porte, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Emerson, R. W. 1983. Essays and Lectures. Washington, D.C.: Library of America.
Emerson, R. W. 1999. Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820-1876. Bridgewater, NJ: Replica Books.
Emerson, R. W. 1888, c1860. The Conduct of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Emerson, R. W. 1899, c1870. Society and Solitude. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
McAleer, J. J. 1984. Days of Encounter. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.
Richardson, R. 1995. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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