Self-Reliance
Ralph Waldo Emerson
1841

Within a few hours, I had several instances where Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” was brought to my attention. As one not to ignore synchronicities, I searched for it as soon as I could. I really enjoyed and felt motivated by his words, and have been wanting to share my thoughts on it for a while.

Fascinated with the transcendentalist movement, and finding myself agreeing with a lot of Emerson’s philosophies (and using a lot of his quotes), I’ve been trying to get through his entire collection from start to finish. It’s some pretty heavy reading, so taking down one essay at a time makes it feel a little more accessible. 😉 “Self-Reliance” is empowering prose that encourages us to acknowledge our own individual greatness, to free ourselves from society’s restrictions, and to believe in our own truth.

Each generation of wisdom seekers and speakers proves that there is always more to explore on our eternal search for understanding, discovering new ways to figure out who we are and how we fit into this infinite universe. In “Self-Reliance”, Emerson’s focus is on living a life that exemplifies and expresses our individual strengths, a subject still as relevant today as it was in 1841.

Here are some of my thoughts & favorite selections from “Self-Reliance”:

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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.

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.

The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. 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.

How often do we dismiss our own potential because we are afraid of what might happen when we release our own thoughts into the world? Why do we believe that other people have the answers that we have within ourselves? Claim your work, be brave, and take responsibility for expressing that which you feel driven to.

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. 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.

I especially love the flow of this excerpt (I’ve mentioned it before), and the power of the words, the call to greatness. It is easy to fall into the shadows, but our destiny wills us to do more: to share, lead, and live our lives with courage.

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Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

It is intriguing to hear the truth in these words, that society is designed for conformity. To have the integrity of your own mind requires you to embrace your non-conformity, to accept that in doing so you will free yourself from the restriction of others. Do what you must do, and you will maintain your independence regardless of any opposition.

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The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — 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.

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. Greatness appeals to the future.

I find this an empowering concept: release the idea that it’s important to be consistent. You do not need to think what you thought, or be who you were yesterday. As long as you are being genuine with your present self and speaking your current truth, the past is irrelevant. Allow yourself to be misunderstood, or to veer from your original course, but keep following your own path.

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These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.

Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul.

Living in the present, being in the moment, is often mentioned as a necessity for living your best life. In this case, Emerson states so beautifully the idea that our power is best utilized when we are in the process of being or becoming. We benefit greatly from realizing how the natural world provides examples of living in the present, as well as our innate design for self-reliance.

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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. 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.

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique.

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.

To do what is mentioned throughout “Self-Reliance” calls for a fierce dedication to your own truth, to bravely claim your own independence. It requires you to discover for yourself what it is you are here to express, to fully embrace your gifts, and to release any attachment that keeps you from doing so. Take on this mission and you will find those who are in line with you, but know that you can always return to yourself. Your self is where you find all that you need in order to live the glorious life that you are destined for.

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