Emerson’s ideas around what it might mean to be human are easily as beautiful as they are challenging: we are what life has made us, but what we make of that is down to us.
Our experiences, insights and understanding are unique to each person: “The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.” We’ve all lived our own lives, meeting those who happened to cross our paths, drawing conclusions from all we’ve done and the lessons we’ve learnt about life, society and human nature.
Out of that, we have our understanding. We’ve reached a certain level of comprehension about how the world works, how we got here, and how best to act within that picture. Life gave us these ideas, and “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Surely we can only know what we have encountered, what we’ve understood and seen to be important (see Note One).
Where do we go from there? Should we simply go along with others, conforming in order to belong, or do as Emerson concluded: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” Everyone thinking, speaking and acting confidently from experience yet inclusively of others is a powerful idea, although not without challenges (Notes Two).
In terms of human society we may wish for an easy life with little conflict, but where does it lead? Unless there truly are no problems to resolve – no differences or disparities to be acknowledged and respectfully incorporated – then we must need to have difficult conversations. Going along with things out of a desire for ease, enjoyment or company may also mean being slightly less than true.
Rather than avoid things, we could say “I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true.” We could draw on our experience, explore that of others, and attempt to find real understanding there. We could also accept that people change and make mistakes, that who they once were may not be who they now are, that life changes us and we might do well to take that into account (Notes Three).
The idea that “Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation” seems a far more beautiful approach to life: that we all carry the fruit of our existence, with much to offer through our insight and presence. To be true to ourselves – accountable to our ideals, beliefs or principles, but acting free from the opinion of others – is an exciting idea of what being human could mean.
Finding the centre of our being, the truth of our experiences, and the courage to bring something new to life out of the path we’ve taken is, to me, such a powerful view of life. Because, at the end of the day, we have ourselves: our minds, our wealth of insights, and our agency for change.
Notes and References:
“Essays” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, Bungay, Suffolk) originally published in 1841.
Note 1: Is anything obvious to someone who doesn’t know?
Note 2: Communicating divergent experiences
Note 2: Listening, tolerance & communication
Note 3: Empathy in a world that happily destroys
Note 3: Intrinsic worth over society identity