Ralph Waldo Emerson: my kindred spirit
Have you ever felt so alone and misunderstood? Has it ever seemed like it was you against the world, and amidst your teenage angst, that “no one gets me”? As a result of the paucity of discussion between you and your peers, do you sometimes feel as though your mind and awareness were operating a completely different level than everyone else?
When it comes to concepts like society and thought production, I did.
Until I didn’t, because I recently just found someone that completely seems to understand how I’m feeling. My new kindred spirit is Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Prior to senior year, I’d definitely heard his name being thrown around ofttimes. But I never bothered to pick up any of his major essays, because of such factors as lack of time and the (now questionable) fact that I hate reading non-fiction pieces such as essays.
This semester, my APUSH class was given a project, with multiple topics to choose from, one of which was Transcendentalism. My preliminary research (…Wikipedia) revealed that some big Transcendentalists were people like Thoreau and Emerson. In my sophomore English class, we had read some of Thoreau’s essays and I found myself very capable of relating to him and sympathizing about what he had to say in Walden. Naturally, I was excited to read more Transcendentalist literature, so I chose that topic and did deeper research about Transcendentalism, which obviously included reading the classics.
Meanwhile, my senior English class began the year by reading Into the Wild and watching its film adaptation. This dude Chris falls prey to the utopian rhetoric of writers such as Thoreau and Emerson and ends up starving to death in Alaska. Not pleasant. One of the most recalled scenes that comes to mind is the one in which Chris is sitting in a bar, slightly drunk, and just repeats bitterly to his friend, “Society. Society, man. Society.” The context in which this phrase is said establishes that he is critical of the state of society. None the less, that was a few months ago, and just after Thanksgiving break my class read Self-Reliance, and upon reading it, the whole essay just blew my mind.
WHERE HAS EMERSON BEEN MY WHOLE LIFE? EVERYTHING THAT I’VE EVER FELT ABOUT SOCIETY AND LIFE IS PERFECTLY ENCAPSULATED (or so it seems) IN HIS QUAINT LITTLE 28 PAGE ESSAY SELF-RELIANCE, EXCEPT HE SAYS IT INFINITELY MORE ELOQUENTLY THAN I EVER COULD.
His statements about the way the mind operates, his aversion to the current operation of society is like music to my ears, because sometimes, when I’m just completely overwhelmed with everything else in my life, I tend to become a bit pessimistic about “society.” Don’t we all?
His main argument, I think, comes across clearly through the title of this essay: self-reliance. That is, the reliance upon nothing but yourself in determining such things as morals, truth, religion, etc. Combined with the idea that we enter the world and leave the world by ourselves, his words seem to augment the point that we must express our own thoughts, and not be influenced by society. When someone accepts this mindset, they are more
Oh, society. A word I use in so many of my posts, “society” is something that I’m generally skeptical of. Emerson, similarly, attacks the false altruism that churches, charities, colleges, etc all try to impose on each other, and calls their bluff.
He decries conformity, saying that your value is not dictated by “society;” rather, being an individual in the crowd of monotony gives you the chance to find your own passion. Conforming to one community then identifies you as such, giving you one opinion, making you one-sided, forcing you to defend ideas that you don’t need to defend. It also becomes a filter for what you believe. Yeah, I see that happen with people, as simply as what extracurriculars they do. Do you ever notice people calling you “the jock” or “the white kid” or “the debater” or the “Asian” or the “drama kid?” Yeah, it gets on your nerves after a while.
His whole point about this is that we shouldn’t care about what other people think about us. This is probably the portion of his essay that spoke to me the most, because it’s the most relevant to my life right about now. Who are these people, and what authority do they have to judge us and measure our worth? Their opinions change with the weather, and their standards fluctuate like a barometer. But their negativity comes with absolutely no depth, so there’s need to give it an impact. I frequently tell myself, their opinions only matter as much as you let them matter.
THE THEME OF MY BLOG IS INCONSISTENCY. EMERSON SAYS THAT IS OKAY AND EVEN GOOD, BECAUSE OUR OPINIONS ARE FORMED BY OUR MEMORIES AND OUR EXPERIENCE. Contradictions are inevitable and the concept of inconsistency as something to be criticized is merely a social construct. Your morals and beliefs, though they may seem to change regularly, are also relatively stable throughout the course of your life. The trick is how you choose to perceive it. Stepping back and evaluating the whole of your life reveals that we really don’t change dramatically nor rapidly, and therein lies an inherent symmetry in following your own nature.
Being never stationary implies that our opinions are constantly changing as we go about living our lives, accumulating experience. These experiences subsequently shape our beliefs, and I would encourage inconsistency, if that’s what it takes for you to grow as a person.
I don’t think posting large chunks of text is going to be at all effective because you can and should read the whole essay (and others!) yourself; I might characterize it as a dense read. It definitely takes a couple of re-readings to comprehend but when you focus hard enough, you will find astounding and thought-provoking passages. 10/10 would recommend.
(Just one though, my favorite)
I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency…Let us never bow and apologize more.
I suppose that being a high school student complicates things a bit. Peer pressure is so friggin’ overpowering, it makes me weak at the knees. I conform to society with every breath that I take; my giving into what society dictates is evident in my clothing choices, my school, my food, my blog, my shampoo products, and maybe even my music…
Obviously there’s two extremes and I lie somewhere in between them, but Emerson spoke to me as I read his work in English class and I just wanted to rant about it a little bit.
This song is very catchy: