More than anyone in history, Emerson wants You to be You, especially when the world wants you to be something else.
"A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises you spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself."
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Essayist, speaker, editor, publisher, theologian, philosopher and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson remains America’s greatest sage. His most lasting piece of advice was this: “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
Easy enough to follow, right? To be happy and prosper, just follow your heart. If you’re over 30, however, you know that following your heart is easier said than done. But take solace in knowing this: Following your heart (or passion) wasn’t easy for the poster boy of this ethos either.
Born into early 19th Century New England, Emerson grew up in a world that demanded conformity and expected folks to follow their community more than their heart. Beneath the old Puritanical shadow of Boston, however, stood one dissenting voice for young Ralph Waldo -- his beloved Aunt Mary. An eccentric nonconformist standing 4 feet, 3 inches tall, Mary read radical literature and slept in a coffin-shaped bed. She also repeatedly told young Ralph Waldo to “do what you are afraid to do.”
As a young adult, however, Emerson did not take his aunt’s advice. Instead, he chose the safe path of conformity and became a minister like his father. Emerson did what so many of us do when we’re young: he did what was expected of him. He followed the lead of others, did what they did, believed what they believed, and then became addicted to their approval. So like most of us, Emerson did what he did, not because he was a slave, but because he was a teenager who didn’t know better.
By his twenties, Emerson had fulfilled his father’s expectation and become a minister. Standing on the pulpit each Sunday at Boston’s 2nd Unitarian Church, Emerson preached to his flock. As the days turned into months, however, his Aunt Mary’s advice began to creep into his brain. The books she shared and the ones he gravitated towards were not all religious texts, they included radical works by radical authors like Coleridge, Byron, and Goethe. Their ideas, which became known as Romanticism, resonated with Emerson and eventually changed his life. On one Sunday, Emerson shared these radical ideas from the pulpit and soon began sharing them regularly.
From the late 1700s thru the early 1800s, the Romantic movement was a direct response to the extreme reason promoted by the Enlightenment and the herd-mentality of “civilizing” forces like the church and bourgeois society. The chief conspirator of the Romantic Movement was none other than John-Jacques Rousseau, who most famously wrote, “man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” Ever critical of the church, the state, commerce and bourgeois culture, Rousseau wrote that “the civilizing process was leading not to liberation but to enslavement.” Above all, Rosseau wants us to “return to nature” and be more human than cog, pawn, or consumer.
Rather than celebrating a life of the mind, Romanticism encouraged liberating oneself from the mind through a life of wonder. Logic, skepticism, and experimentation were out; imagination, beauty, and mystery were in. Your ultimate truth and existence came to you through your own intuition and not from an outsider’s logical or dogmatic argument.
As historian Tim Blanning put it, Romanticism became a “culture of feeling” where, as Hegel noted, “absolute inwardness” mattered most. Better to trust your inborn natural instincts, a Romantic would say, than the status quo beliefs which work to control you and always seem to change.
As he read the Romantics, Emerson’s soul caught fire. He began to crack through the shell of his identity (how others perceive him) and began to formulate the following conclusions:
God lives within you. God isn’t a supernatural being in heaven, God is a profoundly natural force that exists everywhere in nature – including in you because you are part of that natural world.
Because God lives within you, he also speaks to you. How? Through your intuition* and the sublime.**
When you feel intuitive spikes or sublime feelings, pay attention because God is revealing mysteries about who you are and why you exist.
Because God speaks to you, and only you can feel what you feel, there is no need for priests, preachers, or scripture. “Go alone,” Emerson told seminary students at Harvard, and “dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
As the organized Christian Church in Boston often told their flock to obey scripture as God’s irrefutable word, Emerson began to tell his own congregation (and later his readers) to trust their intuitions (their inner-voice) as the sentiments of God. Preaching a pantheistic and whispering deity eventually became just too much even for the liberal Unitarian Church of Boston. As for the more devout Protestant denominations... well, Emerson was practically Satan.
Unfit for the stern doctrines and rigid scriptures of any organized church, in 1832 Emerson took a giant leap of faith and left the ministry. For the next fifty years until his death in 1882, Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged readers and listeners to adhere to their inner-self (their intuitions, resonations, and feelings of the sublime) as their own inherent genius delivered to them by the divine flame that lives inside them. In short, to “trust thyself.”
Since the day Emerson began trusting himself and publishing his thoughts on paper, he has been a spiritual icon for anyone who has ever felt trapped in a job, a relationship, or any other circumstance that shackles them. To this day, Emerson encourages us to release our baggage, spread our wings and fly. More than anyone in history, Emerson wants You to be You, especially when the world wants you to be something else.
Again, for those over 30, you know that being who you truly are is never easy. Had Emerson stayed at the 2nd Boston Church and told folks what they wanted to hear, his life would have remained safe, comfortable, and predictable. He would have kept his old fellowship intact. Instead, he veered off the well-traveled highway of life and took his own hard dirt road towards human flourishment.
Even today, Emerson’s message continues to influence people who “trusted thyself,” bucked the status quo, and changed the world. In his 2020 Letter to Shareholders, Jeff Bezos of Amazon wrote something I found to be profoundly Emersonian:
“The world wants you to be typical – in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen. You have to pay a price for your distinctiveness, and it’s worth it. The fairy tale version of “be yourself ” is that all the pain stops as soon as you allow your distinctiveness to shine. That version is misleading. Being yourself is worth it, but don’t expect it to be easy or free. You’ll have to put energy into it continuously.”
While the world wants you to be typical, Emerson wants you to let your freak flag fly. “Insist on yourself,” he proclaimed, and “never imitate.” Trust your instincts as your own inherent genius -- as the word of God. You are not a sinner, he'd say, you are a divine and original human spirit capable of harnessing divine genius from within you. By trusting what you feel and doing “what you are afraid to do,” the experts, authorities, and know-betters who seek to persuade you will fade in influence and you will become the captain of your soul.
Now, how Barbarian is that!?
Click here to read Part-2, "The Terrible Freedom of Life," from the Emerson Series.
*Intuition. According to Gavin de Becker, who wrote a best-selling book on intuition, our intuition is a gift from nature and inherent to our evolutionary survival. When we feel our intuition (the pit in our stomach, the hair behind our neck, a spike in adrenaline), he writes, “it’s always in response to something” and “always has your best interest at heart.”
**Sublime. According to bestselling author Robert Greene, the sublime “is anything that exceeds our capacity for words or concepts by being too large, too vast, too dark and mysterious.”