This week we celebrate the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson. With each passing year, I gain a deeper respect for the work of this remarkable American writer. On Friday, May 25, the Humanity Project will commemorate Emerson’s 209th birthday. He lived from 1803 – 1882, a good long life in those days. Emerson wrote poetry and essays, was an accomplished speaker and a forceful abolitionist. But more than anything, Emerson was a philosopher, a man whose experience resulted in profound insights about how to live our lives in the most effective, healthy, productive ways.
To me, his writing is very personal. I have open on my desk all the time a copy of Emerson’s masterpiece, his essay called “Self-Reliance.” The piece is written in an almost poetic style, each sentence layered with meaning. I believe it addresses nothing less than the central issue of human life: the need for individuals to learn self-trust. This sounds like a very broad statement by me, saying that one short essay deals with “the central issue of human life.” But, you see, my own experience has brought me back time and again to Emerson’s words as I’ve learned their deeper significance. He urges us to listen to our own voice from within, to trust our most insistent instincts no matter what anyone says, to believe our own judgments and feelings and thoughts. Anyone who’s tried to do this knows how tough it can be. And anyone who’s ever accomplished this, even briefly, knows how liberating and energizing it is. Emerson wrote, “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 his dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his … Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” My decades of life have shown me that Emerson is right. I believe his words, not because I admire him but because my experience has shown me the same things. I’ve learned that our constant effort to find agreement from the outside world with our thoughts and feelings and actions is the very thing that diminishes us as individuals, and therefore diminishes society as a whole. When we learn to trust ourselves without reservation, we free ourselves to be much more — and to contribute much more to others. This is the lesson of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I hope you’ll find a copy of “Self-Reliance” and read it, preferably more than once over time. You’ll find he had a very great deal to say. Happy Birthday, RWE!