I just read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” and I can’t figure out if it’s exactly what I needed to read or exactly what I didn’t need to read. The essay essentially argues that every individual needs to trust him or herself to be intelligent, to discover truth, and to have valid ideas. Don’t rely on the minds of the past, don’t shape your actions to match your friends’, don’t worry about how what you do will make others feel. Do what you want to do, and you will achieve your potential.
Every part of me agrees with the guy. And every part of me thinks he’s bonkers.
I do think Emerson is overzealous in his insistence on complete individuality. Yes, everyone’s got good ideas of their own, and everyone should be willing to share them. But that doesn’t mean seeing what the great minds of the past had to say and building on them is a betrayal of our own, individual greatness. Not to mention that a complete disregard for what others think or want is not a very good way to make, keep or influence friends.
But then, as Emerson very rightly points out, those who go on to start revolutions (in thought, country or anything else) often don’t have very many friends. I realized that studying George Fox last semester. The guy had some great ideas, ideas that turned into the Quaker movement. But everyone around him thought he was an oversensitive teetotaler. And they were right. Fox…wasn’t very friendly. He left the Anglican church was because he was convicted and disgusted at what he saw as the half-hearted devotion to Christ, a church body that worshiped God but obsessed over hierarchy instead of Godly behavior. A valid reason, but he was honestly pretty grating about it.
Fox did what Emerson suggests: he disregarded everyone’s opinions and did his thing. His new friends were the people who agreed with him—and his new antagonists were everyone else.
I wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with Fox. I probably wouldn’t have joined the Quaker movement, at least early on.
But I’m glad he did what he did.
Because the world needs people who don’t care. People who will start movements and write manifestos and be lonely in their time but studied later on. But I don’t know if I want to be one of those people. I don’t know if I can be one of those people, or around one of those people. (I don’t know why I’m worrying about this—I currently have no revolutionary ideas in my head. Cue Emerson to berate me for not believing in the Genius unique to me).
So when do you disregard others and pursue what you want? When do you compromise your own desires to better relate to others? Emerson would say “always” and “never.” I can’t quite agree. But I recognize that it is frustrating and even harmful to be always kowtowing to others. But kowtowing to others is a discipline and a humility that’s good to have. It’s part of what living in this world is about.
Everything in moderation, I suppose.
I’ve never been very good at moderation.