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The Terrible Freedom of Life (Emerson - 2/3)

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

When the unemployed (and widowed) Emerson set out to "live his own life and think his own thoughts," he suffered from a terrible freedom. Instead of “trusting thyself,” he began to question thyself.

It’s official, I’m on an Emerson kick! Why? Because he’s a barbarian, of course! Despite his pencil neck and bookish ways, Emerson had one big barbarian quality: Courage. This week and next, I’m adding a Part-2 and Part-3 to the Emerson series. This week, I discuss Emerson's courage to go his own way despite the "terrible freedom" that comes with doing so. Next week, I’ll cover how going his own way enabled him to actually attract a new fellowship of friends -- a famous fellowship remembered by history.

Quick Recap from Last Week’s Essay

The world wants you to be typical, while Emerson wants You to be You – the unique, defiant, and courageous You. Above all, he wants you to "trust thyself" over any outside authority influencing you. As a minister, Emerson’s sermons of “trust thyself” disturbed church leaders. After all, it was Emerson who said, “Go alone… dare to love God without mediator or veil.” And because those sentiments don’t exactly fill church pews, by 1831 Emerson had a big decision to make: either adhere to church authority or go his own way.

The Terrible Freedom

Sitting alone at his desk, the 28-year-old Emerson toiled over a hazy future. Would he surrender to the path of least resistance, submitting to church authorities and keep his social standing and generous salary? Or would he be true to his convictions and walk away towards an uncertain future? Always one to “trust thyself,” Emerson walked away -- away from his community, his livelihood, and his own father (also a minister). As his biographer, Robert Richardson noted, Emerson courageously decided “to go it alone.”

“To go it alone.” Let’s pause and reflect on that for a moment. Think of times in your own life (if any) when you turned your back on the crowd and walked away. Was it easy? Probably not. And for Emerson, forgoing all that was safe and secure in his life wasn’t easy either. What he did was extremely rare, and it still is. Emerson chose his convictions over his mortgage, his freedom over his certainty, his heart over his ego. He showed real courage. He was also alone.

As a species, prolonged loneliness = death. As social creatures we’ve evolved to value fellowship. If your prehistoric barbarian tribe kicked you out, you were totally screwed and likely to be a saber-toothed tiger’s next meal. Because of this, we feel deep anxiety whenever we’re rejected or excluded by those who we feel should be protecting us – i.e. our friends, family, employer, or community.

Beyond the anxiety of being alone is the resentment you face for turning your back on the pack. When you ignore the pack and set off on your own, many of those you’ve left behind will resent you for exercising such ballsy freedom. Your brave action “to go it alone” presses on their open wounds of regret for not having the courage to do what you just did.

Pulled in one direction by your deep intuition and in the other by your friends, family, or mortgage, what the hell do you do? What do you do when your intuition is screaming for you to escape your situation (your job, your relationship, your town, etc.), but you’re scared to death to do so?

Most people do nothing. That’s always the easiest option. When you know what tomorrow will bring, you worry less. It’s easy to think, “I may not be in the best relationship, but it’s better than being alone.” Or “I may not be in the best job, but it’s better than being broke.” Emerson might even agree with both of those statements – it is better to have a job than to be broke. He’d also say that person is settling for the status quo – and he considers settling (justifying your inaction) as a form of suicide, that you are quitting on your creative self (i.e. the real You).

By 1831, when the unemployed (and widowed) Emerson set out “to live his own life and think his own thoughts” -- emitting his natural frequency to the world -- he found himself in a very lonely and desperate place. Even the great Emerson began to not “trust thyself,” and instead, began to question thyself.

His biographer noted that “Emerson’s own way seemed dark and uncertain.” While Emerson’s brother wrote at the time, “Things seem flying to pieces [for Waldo].” As the ex-minister shook with anxiety over an uncertain future, he wrote this in his journal: “Outside, among your fellows, among strangers, you must preserve appearances, -- a hundred things you cannot do: but inside, -- the terrible freedom!”

“The terrible freedom!”

As Americans, we love freedom. But not really. And that’s because freedom isn’t easy. Everyone says they want it (which feels good to say), but here’s the catch: people really want certainty. (Remember the saber-toothed tiger?) It’s in our DNA to choose the safe and certain (i.e. the “practical”) option. Because when you first “go it alone,” freedom comes with zero certainty – and often without safety, money, and a lot of other things that help us sleep through the night. Freedom means complete self-reliance. As a screenwriter friend of mine who often goes a year without a paycheck told me, “Freedom means you only eat what you kill.”

Like his favorite authors – Goethe, Carlyle, Wordsworth, etc. – young Emerson wanted desperately to become a “man of letters,” to be an artist who eats what he kills. But getting paid to kill as an artist is easier said than done.

As he wrestled with his new freedom (and unemployment), the only decision Emerson could make was to flee. And that’s what he did. In the spur of the moment, he gave up his house, sold all his furniture, and boarded a ship for Europe. For the journey, he brought along a trunk of books. Because like his courage and integrity, his books weren’t for sale.

Inspiration and Direction

Arriving in Europe and staying for almost a year, Emerson gained time away from those who excluded him. In Europe, he could explore -- and explore he did! He journeyed through the ruins of Rome, across the peaks of Switzerland, and into the red-draped reading rooms and salons of Paris. He attended a banquet for the 74-year-old Marquis de Lafayette (hero of the American Revolution), and had long visits with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle who Emerson noted was the “undoubted head of English letters.” Through it all, Emerson gained what he needed most: Inspiration! Now inspired to become the man of letters he hoped to be, he had the direction and spark he needed. He would become “Emerson.”

Departing Liverpool for Boston, he journaled, “I’m on the brink of an ocean of thought into which we do not swim.” As the waves of inspiration and intuition came crashing in, Emerson kept his head above water and wrote like his life depended on it -- because it did. He was swimming upstream and conquering his fears in the best possible way: by working his ass off and gaining mastery in what he was drawn to do.

Collecting his journal entries and sermons about nature, intuition, a pantheistic God, Emerson began work on his first masterpiece, a collection of essays he entitled, Nature. Published in 1836, Nature sold well and announced his intuitive ethos to the world – an ethos that became known as Transcendentalism, with Emerson as its founder.

Inspired by the Romantic movement before it, the Transcendental movement of 1830s and 1840s Boston, became America’s first intellectual movement. So what is it?


Because we human beings are made of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc., we’re made of “star stuff” and part of the natural universe. Therefore, a transcendentalist would say, we are connected to an omnipresent force (an “oceanic feeling” he might call God) that binds all things in nature into one. And because you are connected to this one cosmic force, you naturally resonate with certain frequencies within this force. (A physicist would say every piece of matter has a resonant frequency; a transcendentalist would say that includes each human being!)

Over time, according to our transcendentalist friend, the frequencies you attract (or resonate with) from nature reveal themselves to you as deep intuitions. (This explains why, my wife, for example stepped into our house for the first time and said, "we’re going to live here” or why I’ve heard people say, “I knew from the first time I saw her, I’d marry her.”)

When you feel and trust your intuitions, according to transcendentalism, you are connecting with God-Nature-Universe and becoming the real YOU. When you act upon these intuitions, you are transcending the institutions and people who limit or control you. And once you transcend, you begin to flourish as a creative and divine being in whichever pursuits you’re naturally drawn to do. This, a transcendentalist would say, results in a happier and more fulfilled human being living as nature (or God) intended.

Becoming the Barbarian

Within five years of his return from Europe, Emerson was a celebrated public figure (at least in New England) – and America’s first public intellectual.

Looking back, however, Emerson realized that when you listen to your deepest intuitions and go your own way and become the unique you, there may initially be a high price to pay. Those you leave behind may resent you for rejecting their values and choices. And you might immediately begin to question yourself. Only by “trusting thyself” and putting yourself out there towards becoming whatever you are intuitively drawn to do will you become the man or woman – the Barbarian! -- you intuitively feel you could and should become.


Next week is my third and final piece on the “trust thyself” Emerson series. In it, I’ll discuss how the vigor of Emerson’s actions to pursue what he was drawn to do emitted a frequency that attracted new friends who helped him create an incredible fellowship they called “the club,” or what history remembers as the Transcendental Club.

Till then, trust yourself and do it.


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