Ralph Waldo Emerson on Self-Discovery and Learning

A Life of Self-Discovery: Guidance from Ralph Waldo Emerson on Learning About Ourselves

 

One could argue that the heart of Emerson’s true education occurred outside of the classroom. Although he attended Harvard University, he was an unexceptional student who graduated without distinction. He felt at odds with his peers and kept mostly to himself. He however read extensively and throughout his life was exposed to and influenced by the ideas of those such as Thomas Carlyle, Montaigne, Goethe, and Swedenborg. His true education, he conducted himself.

6908d0d4a2fbd7296fa4efab5fd1c241d4f37c33Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed in the strength of the individual and in the greatness of the individual human spirit. He believed that there is genius, beauty, and wisdom within each of us, if we listen to and find it. By nurturing oneself, listening to oneself, and by learning from one’s experiences and emotions, one can discover one’s own truth and self. And this process of discovery is both the journey and the end goal of life.

Emerson was thus on a lifelong journey to discover himself and his writings are his chronicles of that journey.

 

Learning as an Individual Task

Ultimately and above all else, he champions the importance of determining one’s truth by oneself. Learning is not done by imitation or by conforming to what others do or to what society might expect us to do. Each of us is different and therefore what is right and true for each of us will be different. The below is taken from his seminal essay, Self-Reliance.

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.

Thus, we must each do our own work on ourselves, in our own way.

He warns against the temptations and dangers of conformity,

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 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.

 

There are no Shortcuts

And he argues that in order to know something, you have to go through the process of obtaining the knowledge yourself. There are no shortcuts to really knowing,

Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, – must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good or verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule. Somewhere, sometime, it will demand and find compensation for that loss by doing the work itself. Ferguson discovered many things in astronomy which had long been known. The better for him.

 

Learning from Real, Raw Experience

Really knowing thus comes from the process of the mind ‘go[ing] over the whole ground.’ And this process of ‘knowing’ can take many forms. Ever the intellectual, Emerson nevertheless extols the knowledge that can only be gleaned from real, raw life,

Who knows himself before he has been thrilled with indignation at an outrage, or has shared the throb of thousands in a national exultation or alarm? No man can antedate his experience, or guess what faculty or feeling a new object shall unlock, any more than he can today the face of a person whom he shall see tomorrow for the first time.

And to some degree, he chases these feelings, even those of a darker shade,

There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth.

The world is our classroom and just as “the child amidst his baubles, is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force” so “in the game of life: love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God interact.

 

It All Comes Back to Ourselves

And for Emerson, all his efforts towards learning are always somehow in the end, directed back towards himself, for to Emerson, oneself is the beautiful mystery. He writes,

We go to Europe, or we pursue persons, or we read books, in the instinctive faith that these will…reveal us to ourselves.

 

Well, what was the good of that?

A brief reflection on Public Displays of Anger.

london-726443_1280

Once, while at Heathrow getting breakfast, I witnessed a little scene. It wasn’t anything big or unusual, but it was indeed a scene.

“And how is everything?”

The waiter walks up to a table where mother and daughter are sipping on the icy remains of smoothies. The daughter looks about ten years old, dressed in her travel clothes, comfortable – grey sweatpants and a grey and pink long sleeved shirt. Straight hair and a bit of a sullen expression, she’s hunched over her smoothie glass, noisily sucking up air and chunks of ice. The mother perks up at the waiter’s approach, and you can tell she’s been waiting, dying, for someone to ask.

“Well, I’m not too happy with your seat discrimination policy,” she announces loudly. I close the cover on my iPad. She has my attention.

The waiter starts, clearly not expecting this. “I’m sorry?”

“Your colleague,” she demands, “Let me speak with your colleague.” And her finger hooks in the air at the young hostess in the front of the cafe.

Soon the hostess has been summoned, and it begins.

“Right,” she starts. Just so you are here with me, you have to imagine her with this strong English accent – think Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearancesand so this, “Right” comes out full force posh and authoritarian.

“So how come we’re seated here at a regular table and you just seated the two who just came in at a plush table?” The ‘plush’ table she refers to is one of many along the edge of the cafe, with high backed leather armchairs. The mother and daughter are seated at a table in the middle of the cafe that has normal wooden chairs. “We’ve just finished one 9 hour flight and then we have a 10 hour flight to go. Tired, got my daughter with me, and then we have to deal with this crap of, oh, you can only sit here.”

The hostess is red in the face now – she’s only a young girl. “I don’t understand,” she says, shaking her head.

“I said I wanted to sit there,” the lady says, “and you said, no, one of these tables only.”

I write this off as a complete misunderstanding. I am convinced that somehow the mother misunderstood. From how I was seated and from watching other customers, the hostess gives a choice and the customer chooses. I don’t see why this case would be any different – and there were also other kids in the restaurant, so I don’t think that was a factor.

What is interesting to me beyond the details of this specific case however is the customer/server dynamic and how this lady responded to what she saw as an injustice.

The incident ended with the hostess offering to move the two to a different table and with the mother brushing the suggestion off. “No, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

It was quite a stressful exchange with no obvious material benefit resulting…so, why escalate it? Why did the mother feel compelled to say something? What benefits? What end was she trying to achieve?

She felt like she was treated unjustly, discriminated against. She spoke loudly, perhaps for others to recognize this. She was shaming those that had ill-treated her. When we call out the deficiencies of those who serve us, whether it’s the air stewardess who knocks our elbow with the cart or the waiter who makes us wait too long before taking our order – are we seeking to punish? Punishment being their discomfort? Perhaps we imagine that there could be some negative consequences for the employee. Sometimes, there could be compensation for us, a free dessert, a gift voucher – is that what we’re targeting?

There is also a psychological, emotional element. Of being human and needing to release frustrations, to prove to ourselves that we don’t let people step over us, that we know how we should be treated and know how to stand up for ourselves.

And then there is the customer/server element. Are we crueler to those who serve us than to everyone else? My instinct tells me yes. We are more prone to get angry at someone in a serving capacity than someone not in a serving capacity. We might expect more from those serving and less from everyone else. But also, there is little danger or risk from verbally abusing someone while they’re working. They, by the terms of their employment, do not have the ability to respond fully and defend themselves. Chances are, they won’t swear back at you. They certainly won’t physically assault you.

I just found myself, as the hostess, red in the face walked back to the front of the cafe with the mother and daughter still sitting at their ‘non-plush’ table, wondering, well what was the good of that?

How the types of stories we tell define who we are

The way we remember the events in our lives, and in particular, the traumas in our lives, can shape us as much or more than the events themselves.

 

unknown-1769656_1280Stories have the ability to take the events of our lives – big, small, grand or trifling – and from these establish cause and effect, impart and distribute importance, tie together the disparate, cast details aside, hint at symbolism and meaning, moralize, criminalize, and summarize.

How many hundreds, thousands of stories can you tell from a day, an hour, a relationship, an encounter? How many different stories can we tell from the same memories, from the same life? I am good and you are bad – or perhaps, it’s the other way round.

The stories we tell and believe define who we are.

 

Stories Help Us Make Sense of Ourselves

In an excellent article on “life stories” and how the narratives we construct from the events in our lives define who we are and how we perceive the world, Julie Beck explores the links between personality and memory, the self and our stories.

We remember our lives not as lists of facts but in narrative arcs. In order to hold onto the multitudes of memories we create, we turn these memories into narrative. Whether or not we write them down, in our minds, we pick and choose what is important, establishing connections and creating meaning as memories are turned into stories.

A hypothetical – We may remember the painful breakup as the impetus to study abroad. The decision to study abroad may be labeled as the life changing experience that sparked a desire to move later to Asia, where we met our spouse. The bullying in high school led to a stronger sense of empathy and compassion. We establish links. Consciously or not, these narratives become a form of identity. The things we choose to remember and how we choose to remember them can reflect and shape who we are.

These can change. We can rewrite. The fondly remembered, whirlwind first few months of a romance that we hoped would last, might, after a breakup, suddenly be remembered differently – perhaps there were hints of the end lying underneath all along. Perhaps these darker memories take on a greater or at least a different importance than they did before.

And while there isn’t a right or a wrong way to remember, how we remember can significantly impact who we are and how we learn from our experiences.

 

How the Types of Stories we Tell Matter

Beck tells us of the power of the redemption story. A redemption story starts off bad but ends better and having redemption themes in one’s life is generally associated with greater well-being.

Writer Andrew Solomon has a fascinating TED Talk called, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He speaks of childhood trauma, in his case being bullied at school:

I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance. What I didn’t know then and do know now, is that avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you’ve forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.

Solomon was able to turn his trauma into a story of triumph, a redemption story. He says that, “while we don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities…we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences.” Sometimes by going through suffering and through difficulty, we are able to learn so much more than we perhaps otherwise would if life had been easier. Solomon is careful not to glamorize suffering. “Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong precious.”

And Solomon isn’t the first to draw these conclusions. In James Baldwin’s beautiful, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” where he speaks of the oppression that Blacks have suffered in history in America, he writes,

This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, learns something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable.

The ability to find truth and redemption from our tragedies, and the ability to internalize this meaning into our own personal stories, can strengthen our identities and our experience of the world.

james_baldwin_37_allan_warren

James Baldwin

There is an important distinction to make however, that Beck, Solomon, and Baldwin all allude to. We have to be able to turn these traumas into triumphs, into redemption stories in order to obtain these lessons and meaning. Solomon tells us, “We cannot bear a pointless torment.”

Sometimes however, we never create the redemption story. Sometimes, the story isn’t told. It’s repressed. This might come from shame or fear. If a story isn’t created and told, “your memory for that event may be less flexible and give you less chance for growth.”

There can be a darker side to our stories. The alternative to the story of redemption can be one where the individual positions oneself as the victim. This is especially dangerous when a group of traumatized individuals identify themselves as victims of a group of villainized “Others.” A story of victimhood can turn into what author Amin Maalouf characterizes as the propensity of persons to turn to violence when they suspect they are being threatened. James Baldwin warned against the same as he saw the rise of militant black groups in response to their oppression.

And a possible key towards preventing victim thinking? Philosopher Jonathan Sacks in his book on violence recommends empathy. “To be cured of potential violence toward the Other, I must be able to imagine myself as the Other.”

Truth is multifaceted. And almost as important as how the action played out, is how the action is told after the fact, whether it as a part of our own personal story, or in a story of something bigger than ourselves. We can teach and we can also hurt each other depending on the types of stories we tell. In life and in history, the stories outlive the actions.

“The story of things done outlives the act” and “a thing said walks in immortality if it has been said well.” The bards also, Homer-like, “straightened the story . .  . in . .  . magic words to charm all men thereafter.” They did not merely report, they also set it right — Aias had slain himself from shame, but Homer had known better and “honored him above all men.” (from The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt)

 

On Glimpsing More of Those We Love

The beauty of discovering our loved ones through their writing, from the to-do list to letters to marginalia

postcards-1365409_1920

I was listening to a podcast some weeks ago where one of my role models, Krista Tippett, was interviewing another of my role models, Maria Popova. It was a lovely conversation that explored the meaning and wisdom Maria Popova seeks to create through her popular blog, brainpickings.org. Anyways, Maria Popova said something that resonated with me. She was speaking of her great grandfather who she never met and of discovering some of his books.

“And he had — his marginalia were extraordinary. And I felt this strange kinship with him through the years, through the cultures and the eras and these different media. Because what I do when I read is essentially what he did, which is he wrote in the margins all these notes on things that he didn’t understand and wanted to understand. He underlined passages that he noted were beautiful language. And words that he didn’t know that he would look up in the dictionary, he would circle them and then write the translation. But it was this sort of intellectual dance with another mind that you could see in the margins of his books. And I was just very moved by it.”

And what a beautiful thought. She was able to see a very authentic and private side of the great grandfather she never knew through his notes and marginalia. I think there’s something special about it being his own personal notes. Not really meant for other eyes, our private notes are less self-conscious, less filtered, and thus more intimate, raw, and authentic.

I was reminded of something the philosopher Theodore Zeldin has once said, that one may often know better one who is dead that we have never met from what they have left in their private writing and letters than we may know those we interact with in the flesh. In the flesh, in “real life,” we conceal so much and present only small reflections of ourselves to those we meet and interact with. And even with those we love, how often do conversations go beyond the surface, past the day to day conversations about an upcoming dinner to plan for, a child’s problems at school, or an event on the evening news? And when we do go a bit deeper (into feelings or religion, for example), aren’t we so careful not to offend?

And so it is a luxury, something quite special I think when we’re allowed into the private notes of someone we love, or someone we might have loved. And when we can have ‘conversations’ with someone from the past, through interacting with their written words.

My dad wrote once about discovering the letters of his grandmother among his father’s possessions after his father passed away. He found several letters and scraps of letters written by his grandmother in the weeks before she died. Several of them are crumbling and close to falling apart from how often it appears they’ve been reread. My dad, in discovering these letters was incredibly touched. He had a record of letters from mother to son, revealing a grandmother he never knew and a side of his father too that he hadn’t seen. My dad wrote of the find, “It is literally hearing a voice from the past. Someone I remember so little about because I was so ‘wee’ when she passed away has now been revealed to me and I now feel as if I ‘know’ them a lot better, it’s almost like being graced with a peek into their soul.

There’s something very beautiful about being granted access to more of those we love and especially in the intimate way of reading their writing, which is the very closest thing to their thoughts.

Even the mundane can be special. I recall a tweet I saw from Alain de Botton in January, “Glimpsing someone else’s to-do list – like watching them sleeping – tends always to be endearing.” Isn’t it? It’s the person, the person themselves without the pretensions and cover up that we’re interested in and each opportunity we have of glimpsing this is truly special. Even the to-do list and marginalia in books.

 

The Books We Never Finish

Words of comfort from Henry Miller on all those books we never finish

millerbooks

In reading the various lists of books people have read and recommended for 2016, I thought about what would be on my list. And as much as I was able to enjoy the process of revisiting what I had read and what had moved me, I also felt guilt. There were so many books I started and never finished or bought but never even started. This second list, my graveyard of unfinished books, was fairly long and I was surprised by what was on it. There were books by favorite authors, books that from what I had read so far I really liked, books that were the primary sources for some of my favorite quotes, even books I had recommended to others. So why hadn’t I finished them? And should I finish them?

There are many reasons we may want to finish what we’re started – For books that are bought, there is the dollar value of the book that shouldn’t be squandered, if the book seems uninteresting – well maybe it’ll get better in a few chapters, and for the educational/informative book, the thought – even if I’m not enjoying this book, perhaps it’s good for me. And today, when I don’t finish books, I feel all these pressures. The books nag at me, like unvacuumed floors or dry-cleaning waiting to be picked up,  egging me on from my bedside table and their prolonged stay on my “Currently Reading” Goodreads list.

So what stops me from finishing books? My initial list of reasons, looking at the books that remain unfinished this year, reads like this: 1) The book is repetitive and I feel like I’ve already gotten “the point” (applies typically to nonfiction), 2) I want to start reading something else, 3) The book isn’t interesting (anymore) , 4) I get busy, 5) Who knows? I forgot.

What I think it comes down to though is: I stop reading a book because I want to use my time differently, whether I want to start reading something else or perhaps not read at all. The quality of the book and how I connect with the book ultimately impacts this feeling/decision, but not entirely. As alluded to before, I really like and admire many of the books I’ve stopped reading. Some of my favorite quotes come from Angle of Repose (from the portion of the book I actually read) and based on what I’ve read so far of Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, I’ve recommended it to a few friends.

Is the excuse “I want to stop reading this book so I can spend my time doing something else” good enough? Does it depend perhaps on what the “something else” is? What if it’s reading, but just a different book? That sounds like an apples to apples, zero loss/zero gain transaction.

I want to put this thought on pause for a moment and draw upon Henry Miller’s thoughts on reading. In his book, The Books In My Life, he describes the primary reasons for reading,

We read now, as I see it, primarily for these reasons:

one, to get away from ourselves;
two, to arm ourselves against real or imaginary dangers;
three, to “keep up” with our neighbors, or to impress them, one and the same thing ;
four, to know what is going on in the world;
five, to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater, higher activity and richer being.

Other reasons might be added, but these five appear to me to be the principal ones—and I have given them in the order of their current importance, if I know my fellow man. It does not take much reflection to conclude that, if one were right with himself and all was well with the world, only the last reason, the one which holds least sway at present, would be valid. The others would fade away, because there would be no reason for their existence.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Reasons one to four don’t really matter – or they shouldn’t (although Miller thinks we presently act as if the first four reasons matter more). And if the fifth reason Miller lists is truly the “correct” reason to read, that we should read “to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater,  higher activity and richer being” – then perhaps it’s a question of measuring the activity of reading the particular book in question (the one we’re considering abandoning) versus the competing activity (whether it’s a different book or something else) against the standard of this question. Which of these activities would bring greater enjoyment/stimulation? If we’re going to enjoy the other book or other activity more, then perhaps it’s okay to stop reading whatever it is we’re currently reading.

Of course, this forces us to ignore quite a few influences that may exist – namely some of the first four reasons for reading: the parents, teacher or friend or Oprah that told us to read such and such book as well as that nagging part of the mind that says we’ll be a better person if we just finish this book on how to persuade others. But Miller is saying that reading should be about enjoyment and enjoyment in the purest sense, what we ourselves find enjoyable, without pressures from elsewhere. And so if midway through a book, another book or activity seems to be more enjoyable – shouldn’t we be entitled to leave a book unfinished? Whether it’s a pause for a day, a week, years…or forever, I would say yes. Perhaps we’ll return to it, perhaps we won’t.

And if we are abandoning a book not for another book, but to spend that same time doing something…else? Returning to Henry Miller,

One of the results of this self-examination—for that is what the writing of this book amounts to—is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more. As a glance at the Appendix will reveal, I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ” well-educated ” man—yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of”books.” But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.

and

Here an irrepressible impulse seizes me to offer a piece of gratuitous advice. It is this : read as little as possible, not as much as possible! Oh, do not doubt that I have envied those who drowned themselves in books. I, too, would secretly like to wade through all those books I have so long toyed with in my mind. But I know it is not important. I know now that I did not need to read even a tenth of what I have read. The most difficult thing in life is to learn to do only what is strictly advantageous to one’s welfare, strictly vital.

as well as

If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself—direct experience of life.

So there you go. Perhaps you really should stop reading that book then.