[Those in the congregation called out answers. One person remembered her grandmother, a woman who canned vegetables and made jam from scratch. Another person thought of local farmers in the heartland. One person suggested Barack Obama. I presume this person was referring to Obama’s unlikely rise from modest origins to a position of tremendous prominence. Another person suggested that self-reliance meant being able to stick with and not waver from your values. Yet another person suggested that self-reliance was connected with breaking from social conventions and proposed the late comedian George Carlin as an example. Someone else suggested Kurt Vonnegut.]
Allow me to share one of the examples that Emerson gives of self-reliance. It is a surprising image. Emerson writes, “Infancy conforms to nobody; all conform to it; so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.” [Emphasis mine] This is a great image, isn’t it? I mean, you put a baby around a group of adults and the adults are the ones cooing and goo-gooing. Influence goes one way and not the other. You put a baby in the worship service and no matter how erudite and magnificent and moving the sermon is, a baby is going to make up its own mind when it wants to cry. It is a different image of self-reliance than the ones we thought brainstormed.
The sermon this morning is the first in a two part series of the subject of self-reliance. It is a subject about which I feel there is a considerable amount to say. Two weeks from now I will be preaching part two, a sermon about how understandings of self-reliance have been distorted and perverted in both our larger contemporary culture and, actually, in the very manifestation of our core sense of what it means to live as Unitarian Universalists. Self-reliance can become a dangerous idolatry and it can be practiced in ways that are grotesque. More on that in two weeks.
These days, the term “self-reliance” is often used in unsavory ways. Self-reliance is a principle that is invoked to argue matters of public policy. You may hear a person argue that government assistance programs create dependency and that we need to get rid of those programs so that people learn to become self-sufficient. You hear the argument that it is wrong for health care to be mandatory because people have a right to be self-determining. Big government is criticized because it interferes with local control and personal liberty. All of these arguments boil down to some notion and definition of self-reliance, some notion of rugged individualism.
I am left having to reconcile my public policy convictions, that are diametrically opposite from those I just mentioned, with the fact that at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist tradition lies one of our most important texts, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance.
It seems to me that if Thomas Paine can be co-opted, that if the architects of the Constitution can be taken hostage, that if history can be rewritten at every turn, then it certainly does seem to me as if an essay called, of all things, “Self-Reliance” is ripe for misinterpretation and misuse.
What I want to do this morning mostly is to go back and revisit that essay and talk about what it actually is about. Emerson is our ancestor and we are heirs of many strains of thought, including Emerson’s, and a lot of us haven’t read any of Emerson’s essays since high school. So, let’s revisit this most famous of Emerson’s essays.
Here is some historical background: As Ralph Waldo Emerson approached his thirtieth birthday, his life was in crisis. He had married his young wife, Ellen, with whom he was completely infatuated, while she was already showing symptoms of the tuberculosis that would take her life not that long after they were wed. And, related to the tragedy in his personal life, he was feeling restless in the Unitarian ministry. He tried to provoke theological arguments with his parishioners in Boston over the meaning of communion and prayer, but his congregants didn’t take the bait. He discussed resigning from the ministry; his congregation told him to go to Europe for a year, clear his head, and think things over. The trip confirmed his decision to leave the ministry. On the boat back from Europe, Emerson penned the essay “Nature” and began to sketch out some of the essays, including “Self-Reliance,” that he would publish as a follow up to “Nature” in 1841. Upon returning to America he launched a career as a lecturer and essayist.
The obvious question is this: If Emerson was saying we need to be reliant on ourselves, what are the things he was worried about us being too reliant on? In other words, his writings reflect particular historical circumstances. What circumstances are reflected in his writings?
The answer to this question begins on that boat back from Europe. Emerson is writing literally and metaphorically facing towards the new West and with his back to Europe.
Creating an America that is differentiated from Europe is a subject that comes up over and over in Emerson’s early essays, as well as in the poetry of Whitman, the psychology of William James, and the nature writing of John Muir. The United States had somewhat of an inferiority complex. It was still figuring out how to utilize its wealth, and many felt America was deficient culture, history, and intellect in comparison to Europe. The idea that the United States could have an inferiority complex and could suffer from low self-esteem sounds very foreign to us today, but it is an important thing to realize in order to understand Emerson.
It seems to me that it is one thing to urge confidence and self-esteem, to give a motivational message to someone who feels disempowered and unsure. It is another thing to claim self-reliance at the moment of victory. I view Emerson much more in the mode of self-esteem builder than arrogant champion. Here he is writing about breaking away from European culture. This is not subtle. He writes, “Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and Distant… Why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model?”
Our hymnal contains a paragraph from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” It is number 556 in the hymnal. It begins, “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” Such a remark seems unusual, but not if we know that Emerson is telling a young nation that everything they need is right around them, even under their windows.
So, if we want to be very precise about what if means to Emerson to practice self-reliance, all we need to do is turn to the end of the essay where Emerson enumerates the areas in which he is urging the cultivation of self-reliance.
Emerson is extremely clear that self-reliance does not have to do with wealth or with economic success. Self-reliance, for Emerson, is not an economic principle; it is not the same thing as economic self-sufficiency. He states this clearly and powerfully:
And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance… They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is. But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature. Especially he hates what he has, if he see that it is accidental, — came to him by inheritance, or gift, or crime; then he feels that it is not having; it does not belong to him, has no root in him, and merely lies there, because no revolution or no robber takes it away. But that which a man is does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property, which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes. “Thy lot or portion of life,” said the Caliph Ali, “is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.” Our dependence on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers.Wow!
So, while Emerson is not writing about economic self-sufficiency, he is writing about cultural and religious self-reliance. His statements about cultural self-reliance are some of his most quoted, and most famous, which is saying something because Emerson is nothing if not quotable. This essay, perhaps more than any other, is replete with many of his most recognizable quotations: “To be great is to be misunderstood.” “Whoso would be a man, must be a noncomformist.” “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And, my favorite, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Let me just say one more word about this essay of Emerson’s before I expand the scope of my comments. Towards the end of the essay, Emerson has this beautiful commentary on prayer, on what prayer might mean to a self-reliant person. He writes, “Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul… But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.”
Let’s summarize what the text says. For Emerson, the concept of self-reliance, though it is presented in lofty and dramatic prose, means several certain and precise things. He is writing very conscious of living in a young nation whose independence was not too distant of a memory. (The use of the image of the infant is not accidental.) Self-reliance had to do with Emerson’s vision of what the American character would be like. There had been a declaration of political independence. Now there had to be a declaration of cultural independence and intellectual independence. And religious independence too. We are not going to look to Rome or to the Archbishop of Canterbury or to Luther or to Calvin or to the great theological academies of Germany for religion. Religion is immediately available to us through nature. It is there just like the roses under the window.
But here we are, 170 years after Emerson’s essay was published, and we have to figure out what self-reliance means for us today, and what it doesn’t mean. What practices of self-reliance will lead us towards health and to the fullest exercise of our being? What practices of self-reliance will lead us to misery and harm? How do we tell the difference between being ourselves in our fullest and being stubborn and prideful and sabotaging life’s fullness? I will be saying more on this in two weeks.
As we come to a close, I want to tell a more contemporary story. It is a joke that was told by David Foster Wallace in his famous commencement address to Kenyon College. [I believe I recently heard the story repeated in a movie or on television, but I can’t seem to recall where I heard it.]
Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."This particular story can be interpreted several ways, but I like to think that it says something about self-reliance. To the devout Christian in the story, the man’s experience is evidence of our utter dependence on the salvation of God. To the skeptical atheist, the story confirms his disbelief. We are reliant on luck and depend on each other. The story raises some suggestions about the nature of our reliance. In some way, each of the two men swapping stories at the saloon can be thought of as partially reliant and partially self-reliant. And, in two weeks, we come back to consider how we navigate our living as a mixture of dependence, independence, and interdependence.