On the train this morning, I read some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. I first read the essay in the eleventh grade in Mr. Calahan’s class on Castle Park High School in Chula Visa (San Diego County). It had an affect on me, as it does on lots of high school kids, probably. But it seems to make more sense to me every time I read it.
Each time I go through it, I highlight something different. Today, I read:
And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
“Now we are men” and not “minors and invalids in a protected corner.” How many times is that easy to forget? How many times can you shrug something off because someone else will take care of it? How often can you shrug off personal responsibility because you are not alone and everyone is in debt, overweight, etc?
Like a lot of adults, I look at my life and not feel like I’ve grown up. I still have superiors. I still obey authority. I still question my actions. I still yearn for the blanket of dogma to tell me what to do.
Yet I’m never certain I am doing the right thing-like I always assumed my parents were. They all made it look so simple. They were all so serious. But were they men?
They stood in line. They did what they were told. They took their lives as it was handed to them and carried out their orders. They went to work. They paid their taxes. They obeyed the law. The coloured in the lines.
Living in London now, I was in a conversation with a colleague at the pub last week. He asked why I studied American history for my degree. Well, the first reason, or course, is because I am American. Secondly, I love the idea of people doing something for the first time. I know some historians or just history buffs who take great interest in what agriculture was like in the nineteenth century or how the cotton-gin was made or how people had to walk so many miles to school. That is not what piques my interests.
I love the idea that people can change the world when they are pushed too far. My forefathers did it in the American Revolution. The civil rights campaigners did it in the sixties and the abolitionists did it in the civil war. Ghandi did it. Mandela. Lincoln. Napoleon.
They all said enough. They put themselves in harms way. They didn’t accept the world the way it was. When the signers of the Declaration of Independence signed that document, they signed their death warrants.
When you are pushed too far, could you rise up and change the world?
You may claim to be happy. You may say you have nothing to complain about. You may not think you are being pushed around. We pay 40% taxes. We get taxed (in the UK) for something like 80% of our petrol. We let them build a dome, when they can’t afford to keep the NHS up to standard.
Once upon a time, people said “Now we are men”.