Since 1986, I have given at least one graduation talk almost every year. Tonight, I want to speak about self-reliance. I turn to Emersons’ essay on the subject, an essay that inspired me when I was young. It no doubt inspired John Dewey and F.M. Alexander as well.
Excerpts from On Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string.
There is a time in our education when we must arrive at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide. We must take ourselves for better, for worse, as is our portion. Even though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to us but through our toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to us to till. The power which resides in us is new in nature, and we alone know what we can do, though not until we have tried.
We should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across our mind from within. Yet, we dismiss without notice our thoughts, because they are ours. We but half express ourselves and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.
I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual effects and sways me more than what is right. I ought to go upright and vital and speak my truth in all ways. Truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, or else it is none.
My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, but that it be genuine and balanced, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think.
You will always find those who think they know what is your duty, better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the worlds’ opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own. But the great person is who in the midst of the crowd keeps, with perfect sweetness, the independence of solitude. The objection to conforming to rules and conventions that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. Force is withdrawn from your proper life. So instead, do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. With the exercise of self-trust new powers shall appear.
Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded? The sense of being, which in calm hours arises in the soul, we know not how, is not separate from things, from space, from light, from time, or from others, but is one with them. Here is the fountain of action and thought. Here are the lungs of inspiration. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which make us receivers of its truth, and organs of its activities.
However, we must go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching. But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, it must elevate. Friend, client, child; sickness, fear, want, all knock at once at thy door and say, “Come out unto us.” But keep thy state; come not into their confusion.
The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standards. But I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It demands something god-like to trust oneself as one’s taskmaster. High be your heart, faithful your will, clear your sight.
Discontent is the want of self-reliance. It is an infirmity of will. Therefore, let us attend to our work. The secret of fortune is joy in our hands.
Insist on being yourself; never imitate. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much, or dare too much. Know that power is inborn, that we become weak the moment we look outward and elsewhere. Abide in the simple and noble regions of your life.
Obey your heart.