Sunday, December 20, 2015

Reflections on Emerson's Self-Reliance

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. 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 he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.....
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. (From Essays, First Series, Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson 1841, from the Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts website)

There is a note of challenge and idealism in Emerson's conviction in his own conviction. "To abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humoured inflexibility when the whole cry of voices is on the other side," is a mantra to which so few adhere. To be willing and able to challenge the conventional 'wisdom' in any social situation, is inevitably to compromise the degree to which one is willing and able to 'fit it'.
Giving voice to our "latent conviction" and anticipating that it shall be "the universal sense" is hardly the core curriculum in most educational institutions in North America. We are the sponges for our parents, teachers, professors and eventually our bosses, especially should we need to acquire their "blessing" and their endorsement and their character references for the next step on our career path. We are taught the "content" of peace treaties, causes of war, logistics of battles, and perhaps, if we are extremely fortunate, exposed to the authentic words of the letters and the diary notes of those whose lives have shaped our nation's history. If our textbooks and our teachers consider a rebel to have been worthy of his death sentence, carried out by the state, then we too are expected to adhere to and to adopt that perspective. If those same sources consider the discoveries of the Madame Currie's of the world, or the Banting's and Best's, or the manuscripts of the Beethoven's and the Bach's to be the steps to civilization on which they and now we walk, then we are so conditioned. And, in the process of our assimilation into the conventional "academic criticism" of the specific discipline, we are shaped as prototypes of the perspectives of those who leaned on the lecterns, and those who circled the laboratories while we conducted the prescribed experiments, (really robotic repetitions of the same tests, and the same dissections in the same laboratories for the past century at least). We are expected to apply the equations of our classrooms to the problems of our examinations, following as closely as feasible the rehearsals of our homework and our studies prior to those examinations.
We learn the definitions of the glossaries of our 'courses' and the meanings of the theories of our intellectual giants, in order to become acquainted with, and disciples of those giants.
When required to write a paper, even in graduate school, about the 'problem of evil in Augustine' and we write that he could have written the twelve step program, for a reader who may have a dependency on alcohol, we are ridiculed as submitting a paper beneath the academic standards of the graduate program in which we have enrolled. "I need quotes!" came the repeated chant of the reader in the evaluation session which demanded a re-write.
Upon exiting her oral defense of her thesis for her doctorate in history, one adult woman commented, "That was more about how and whether I fitted into the parameters of the history department than an inquiry into my thesis, its content, perspective or the standard of proof of my evidence."
We read the writings of  both the original writers, and the critics whose opinions have shaped the opinions of the academic departments built on the reputations of both those writers and their intellectual critics and critiques in a vainglorious pursuit of the kind of academic credentials required to fill an academic position in any of our esteemed universities and colleges. Of course, our work must be "original" in the sense that should another thesis on the same subject or author, or theory complete and defend his or her thesis, with the same perspective as ours, we must begin again, from the beginning.
However, in the social intercourse that comprises our public lives, the working out of our business enterprises, and the conduct of our professional lives in law, medicine, education, social work, and psychology, it is our adherence to both the principles and the established knowledge of the "field" that will first plant seeds of our reputation and sustain the development of that stature, not our thinking and observing and operating outside those parameters.
And yet....
A recent encounter with a registered nurse, some seven years following her graduation, demonstrated the missing ingredients of her formal education, and pointed to her own discernment of a practice which she now includes in each evening/night shift with each patient. "PRN" are initials that signify for nurses, that the patient is given medication as required, and the requirement is expressed by the patient. If the patient does not ask, the medication is not administered. The nurse in questioned learned that such "protocol" (and that is the word ascribed to nursing and medical practice) resulted in confusion and unnecessary pain and discomfort for many patients. Consequently, she asks each patient, prior to their going to sleep for the night, "Do you wish to be wakened for medication, or do you wish to be left sleeping?"
It seems such a simple discernment for the nurse, and an obvious useful practice for her patients, and yet such a question was 'never part of my nursing training' in her words.
Religious institutions, especially, depend on the contrite and disciplined observance of their clergy representatives to the doctrine and the dogma of their faith institution. Church rules against the use of contraception, for example, or the rules against abortion, couched in legal terms like the "right to life", are two prominent examples embedded in both the theologies and the political ideologies of hundreds of politicians in many countries. Searching for potential exceptions, in itself, has been considered worthy of apostasy, as has the administration of the Eucharist for those who have gone through a divorce.
When asked about the teaching of new approaches to the management of business, the assistant dean of one of the more respected business schools in Canada replied, "If you want that, you will have to find it in the training offered by one of the corporations; here we are teaching students to operate a system effectively." And yet, corporations are paying handsomely to "brand" their employees with the insignia of the institution, following completion of the Master of Business Administration (MBA). What they are paying for is effectively "social engineering" in the most unadulterated sense. Albeit, such business training has the status and the power signified in the remuneration that is warranted, for decades....decades of fitting in, complying and operating systems for their corporate employers. Of course, many leave those corporations to try flying their own enterprises, using the training and the experience of their early working years to sustain their new ventures.
And then there is the corporate executive who, after more than a decade of successful business, when asked how he would like to see his company grow, replied, almost with missing a breath: "I want to see everyone in the company "innovating every moment of every day here."
And when I reflected on his clarion call for innovation, especially upon re-reading Emerson's words on self-reliance, I was saddened to think of all the classrooms in all of the towns and cities of this country, and potentially many other countries, where teachers excel at creating an ethos of "control" to the point where even a thought or an opinion offered in satiric rebellion is cause for discipline.
If we are going to help our children and our students, and later our colleagues, to trust their own opinions, and to trust their own truths, especially when the whole world is chanting an opposite opinion and an opposite truth, then we are going to have to begin that process very early, with ourselves.
What questions do we ask ourselves, when faced with a situation with which we feel a deep and profound sense of ill-ease? Do we too often merely bury those thoughts and feelings of discomfort, and continue our usual tape of self-talk, "I must not understand something about this situation so I must repress my thoughts and feelings and go along to get along, once again!" Do we even privately ask another if they are experiencing similar thoughts and feelings about what they know about the situation? Do we summon up the courage, including the political courage to confront the situation, even after giving full consideration to the options available for such a course? Or do we go home, have a glass of wine, throw our discomfort over our shoulder, telling ourselves "that is the way the world works and there is really nothing I can do about it"?
Self-reliance, in Emerson's context, is not merely about making adequate income to support a family. Nor is it merely about not applying for social assistance following a serious accident. Nor is it about the repression of our feelings of inadequacy, when we lose a job, or we lose a family member, or we lose an inheritance, or we lose a valued and cherished reputation through our own weakness. In fact, at such moments of particular "darkness" we are then especially being challenged by Emerson to listen to the inner voice that compels us to reclaim the power of our own truth, even if that truth is in direct odds with the truth of those currently condemning us, excommunicating us, firing us, or leaving us in the ditch.
And when we come to the place where we have the confidence to "tell our story" in all of its warts and all of its embarrassments and all of its complexities, our story will then fill the empty spaces in the universe of others, who, like us, have silenced their truth as not worthy of public exposure.
A story that embodies such a drama has unfolded in Canada recently. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to investigate and report on the Residential Schools for Aboriginal Children, after six-plus years of listening to the stories of the survivors and the families of those students who were uprooted from their families and transported sometimes thousands of kilometers from their homes and their parents and siblings and grandparents, and committed to residential schools operated by various church denominations, under the funding of the federal government. Hundreds, if not thousands of those students died while attending those schools, or have died since; hundreds if not thousands have also carried the scars of the brutality of being called savages, of being called uncivilized, of being called heathen, of both physical and emotional abuse by those 'holy' people who were their teachers and their guardians. And, following a national apology by the former Harper government, the Commission of three, chaired by Mr. Justice Sinclair, himself an aboriginal, spent the last six years listening to and compiling both hard copy and digital reports, including some 94 action items, to which the current government has committed to implement.
It is the truth of those children, now mostly septaginarians or octogenarians, that filled the room, and the hearts and the minds of those attending the presentation of the report, including the Prime Minister, himself having teared up while listening to the truth of the survivors. It is the truth, taken from witnessing such a highly charged national catharsis, that emboldens and enlivens the words and the beliefs and the convictions expressed so many years ago by Emerson. It is also such truth that resides in each person, as his or her "sacred gift" of his or her unique expression of truth for which the world is waiting, without perhaps even being aware of its own waiting.
It need not take such a national tragedy, of such monumental proportions, especially after so many decades of denial and repression, both publicly and privately, both individually and collectively, to evoke the truth that lies under the rock of our own pride, under the mask of our own creating, under the fear of our own generating.
"What if 'they knew' my truth?" as Jesuit John Powell reminds us in his spell-binding little book, "Why I don't tell you who I am".....If I tell you who I am, since that is all I have, you might reject me and then what would I have and who would I be?
Emerson counters with, "You would be yourself, the man/woman God created in whom is planted the unique seed of truth for which the universe is waiting."
Can and will we accept Emerson's challenge, and experience the transformation that emerges from such truth-telling, even if we doubt the world's readiness and openness to our truth?




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