“Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an essay that contains pieces of truth, but it takes that truth to the extreme. Take this quote for example, “My life should be unique.” The assertion is that nothing should be imitated, and that by living in society the inner voice which is unique is drowned out by all the other voices. While we are all unique, as humans we are more alike than different. We all have the same basic needs and desires. We all live and inevitably die. Our lives should not be cookie cutter copies, but we are all only so unique.
Another statement that holds true from this essay is, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” That is an attitude that we should strive for. One that is more concerned with fulfilling our purpose and living life, than being crippled by fear of what other people think or say about us. Except, this truth is again taken too far with statements like this, “I must be myself. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me and the heart appoints.” It is one thing to live without caring what other people think about you, but it is another to do whatever pleases you regardless of the consequences. To live self-centered does not actually benefit anyone. Being egocentric blinds oneself to needs in close proximity that could be met, and makes one unable to learn from anyone.
A way to expand one’s thinking and learn from other people is by travelling and being immersed in other cultures. Predictably, travelling is also condemned in this essay because why would someone who is self-reliant feel the need to learn from another culture. Their personal way is best. Emerson believes one should stay at home, but if travel is necessary to go like “a sovereign and not like an interloper.” Just because another culture does something differently does not mean the way that they do it is wrong. If we humble ourselves and do not assume that we know the right way, experiencing a different culture can open up our perspective and let us see things in new ways. That is one of the purposes of education, to broaden our thinking. A piece of being truly educated is the ability to look past ourselves and learn from others.
Another thing that Emerson condemns is prayer because he sees it as the opposite of relying on oneself and he thinks it makes people lazy. In some respect he is right. Prayer should not just be a vending machine. We cannot ask God for something and expect it to just happen. However, I think it is naïve to think that we can work hard enough, be smart enough, or be whatever enough to accomplish everything on our own. We are only human. It is exhausting to live in a manner that is me against the world. At some point we come to the place where there is nothing else we can do, and working harder is not going to change anything. There are some things that we cannot change, but God can. So while Emerson is right in saying prayer does not mean one has an excuse to just be lazy, it is childish to think that in our fallen human state we can accomplish everything on our own without God’s intervention, presence, or aid. We cannot even keep ourselves alive without the bodies and organs God gave us or the ecosystem God maintains.
Emerson’s whole paper asserts that the only thing that can be trusted and relied on is self. His position is made clear with the line, “It is only as a man puts off from himself all external support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail.” To some degree people need to be able to think and act for themselves, to be self-reliant. You should be able to have an original thought, solve problems for yourself, and survive without being told how to do every single thing. Being completely self-reliant is a depressing way to live though. To strive to do every single thing for yourself and take no outside help. To fight every battle, make every decision, and to live – alone. Emerson thinks that the only way to have peace is through self, but living with that perspective is the way to never obtain peace. Life was designed to be lived in community. We desire relationships. Complete isolation is not healthy. Autonomy is good to a point. During a time when everyone admires superheroes whose own strength saves the day, everyone thinks their way is the only way, and everyone is focused on themselves, we have to be able to see past our own reflection in the mirror. Being self-centered and unwilling to see others or take any input from them is dangerous. Being a part of society and community is a fact of life, unless you plan to go live in the woods in complete isolation. We have to maintain a balance of being able to accept help, guidance, and advice from others, while at the same time not completely relying on it.