Hearts at Work
A Column by James Tipton
“Insist on yourself; never imitate.”
Once again I have experienced in a few short months some dramatic changes in my life, and once again I have resorted to what has always helped to heal me: cleaning and reorganizing (in some cases tossing out) the things that immediately surround me. Last week in my library, I removed my books, dusted and oiled the shelves, dusted the books themselves, and replaced them. One I left on my desk was a well loved, falling apart Modern Library Edition of The Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I was a junior in Ashland High when I first read Emerson’s essay, “Self Reliance”; and in this crumbing copy I hold before me, I have noted nine different dates that I have read that essay, not including the initial date when, through the grace of all that is good and true, I was assigned to read it. I remember how excited I was when I talked with my dad about that essay. He told me that of all Americans, he thought Emerson was the man most wise. My dad, incidentally, was throughout his life (he’s still alive at 98) a combination of both the reflective and the practical man, someone Emerson (and his friend Thoreau) would have appreciated. For several years my father taught high school, both literature and shop.
As I read “Self Reliance” at least a tenth time, duly recording today’s date, some fifty years after I first read it, Emerson’s exquisitely phrased thoughts come back to me, like old friends dropping in for a visit:
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
And we are now men…and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, nor cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist.
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Your goodness must have some edge to it—else it is none.
We cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.
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 crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.
Ordinarily, everyone in society reminds us of somewhat else, or of some other person. Character, reality, reminds you of nothing else.
An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.
If we live truly, we shall see truly.
Insist on yourself; never imitate.
Here at Lakeside, where so many of us are looking toward the setting sun, Emerson’s exhortations remind us that if we do not live our own lives, then society (and this can include political party, religion, family…even our own children) will live our lives for us. It is never too late to live our own lives. As we walk softly toward the rest of our lives, what words and what thoughts do we want to carry in our pack?