Once a year or so, I re-read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. It was particularly helpful this year. People are yelling about fake news and alternative facts. There’s absurd behavior everywhere. The pockets of sanity seem to be shrinking–but they are there.
If anything can help cope with the world today, developing a sense of self-reliance is up there. Not the self-reliance required for hunting and foraging but the self-reliance required for truly independent thought. Emerson realized how hard society pushes against independent thought: “The virtue in most request is conformity…. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
The whole essay is a series of quotes with punch like that one. I’ve collected fifteen more quotes for you below. All are from Self-Reliance unless otherwise noted.
(If you’re into this, there’s a ~7500 word essay expanding on these ideas here.)
The Ability to Be Alone
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” –Blaise Pascal
And if we can’t stand to be alone, we may be more susceptible to bad ideas:
“The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard…If all the emphasis is on what the world’s going to think about you, forgetting about how you really behave, you’ll wind up with an Outer Scorecard. Now my dad: He was a hundred percent Inner Scorecard guy. He was really a maverick. But he wasn’t a maverick for the sake of being a maverick. He just didn’t care what other people thought.” –Warren Buffett (Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball)
We need interesting ideas, perspectives, and, most of all, actions. We need people willing to skip the outrage and find a new, effective, tack:
“When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.”
The world’s complex, but we don’t need to our life to be. In fact, simplicity may be the most potent response there is to chaos.
“Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the foreworld again.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
This is a specific type of simplicity, too:
“It dwells in the main intention of our lives. A man is simple when his chief care is the wish to be what he ought to be, that is honestly and naturally human…At bottom, it consists in putting our acts and aspirations in accordance with the law of our being.” – Charles Wagner, The Simple Life
Realize the Alternative is Harder
To the extent that we’re not self-reliant, we must “break ourselves” for others.
“I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should.”
Don’t Defer Life
“If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.”
Take Yourself Seriously
“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.”
Respect Your Experience
What you believe matters. Your ideas might not all be good, but they certainly aren’t all bad. And if you don’t trust that some are worthwhile, then you’ll never do anything with any of them.
“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.”
“I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly.”
Trust Your Path
For most of us, life doesn’t happen the way we would’ve guessed. This shouldn’t get us down, instead we ought to just focus on correcting our path.
“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now.”
Tend Your Garden
When the world is going mad trying to convince you of one thing or another, you always have the option of forgetting about it all and focusing on what you need to do for your life. Our personal lives are the levers we can use to make the world better, if we don’t cultivate them then we’ll be powerless.
“Panglass sometimes said to Candide:
‘There is a concentration of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.’
‘All that is very well,’ answered Candide, ‘but let us cultivate our garden.’”
Go All The Way
The cult of ‘testing’ has lulled some people into believing that doing more things half-assed is a better option than doing one thing with everything we can possibly bring to it. It’s hard to make this kind of leap, but it’s worth it.
“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.”
This Is Where You’re Supposed to Be
It’s easy to be nostalgic–sometimes for era’s we never lived through–but it’s now that we need to live in. Where and when you are is the place you’re supposed to be. Don’t turn your back on it!
“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 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.”