Up until age 18 my life was pretty darn great. No major tragedies or divorces, fun playing sports and chasing girls, which for me meant obsessive crushes that the objects of my affection never even knew about because I was too mortified of being rejected to ever make anything remotely resembling a move. But that’s another story for another time.
Then senior year brought my first true-blue relationship and the ensuing inner tumult that threw me into my first existential tizzy. To sum it all up, and with credit to Dickens, it was the best of times (truly) followed by the worst of times.
Introduced to Emerson at a tough time
Seeing that I was in a funk, a friend of my girlfriend’s father introduced me to several classic spiritual works. One of those was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay on Self-Reliance. I first read it in 1982 at age 18 and to this day it has had a greater impact on me than anything I’ve read, with the silver medal going to the Tao te Ching.
Many of you are no doubt familiar with some of the passages from this masterpiece. To wit:
“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
“Absolve you to yourself and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”
I love all of these, especially the last, which was my senior quote for the Princeton yearbook way back when. I wrote an article about that, too (link here).
Today’s piece is about another favorite that eloquently elucidates the mysterious genius within all of us. Here’s how Emerson put it:
“Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you…Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the Eternal was stirring at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.”
So much wisdom packed into a couple of lines! It’s about listening to yourself. To your intuition. To your gut.
Who should we not listen to? Everybody and everything else. Not our parents, friends, Vogue Magazine or the BS we see on Facebook and Instagram telling us what the great life looks like.
Emerson is right on. Trust yourself!
Accepting our place in the world
If we do that. If we “Accept the place divine providence has found for” us, we open ourselves to attaining the best that life has to offer. Why? Because we’re living in tune with the Universe/God/Nature…or whatever term or concept floats your metaphysical boat.
For decades I had trouble ‘accepting the place divine providence found for me.’ Rather than tuning in to my insides, I turned my life’s steering wheel over to my ego.
Trying to be a bigshot
How did that manifest? By focusing on getting into the best college I could. In Washington, D.C., it meant trying to land the most high-profile jobs I could. In Hollywood, it meant getting jobs on the best television shows. All of this was in service of looking like a big deal to the outside world.
Hitting the skids in Hollywood led me to pursue the spiritual path, which, I now realize, is what I was meant to do. Turns out Napoleon Hill’s axiom was right:
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
The latter part of Emerson’s quote is about what happens when we do trust ourselves and accept our divine providence. He points out that great people have always done so.
Like whom? The artists of yore always come to mind. People like Rembrandt, da Vinci and Michelangelo created works that seemed as if, in Emerson’s words,
“The Eternal was stirring at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.”
Composers like Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Debussy did the same. As do actors like Daniel Day Lewis, Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro.
What all of these geniuses have in common is the ability to get out of their way. Get what out of the way? Their egos. That doubting, fearing, self-conscious entity that poisons not only great work, but life itself.
And it’s not only the famous and accomplished who pull this off. Ordinary people do, too.
My Mozart Mom
Like whom? My mom. Her providence didn’t lay in pursuing greatness in art, business or anything else.
She came from humble origins on the South side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where her dad was a streetcar conductor. She met my dad and her inner voice led her to have six kids. Yes, six (I’m the last).
There were no nannies. We had a maid that cleaned the house maybe twice a month.
My dad wound up becoming CEO of a Fortune 500 company resulting in my mom meeting governors, senators and presidents and traveling all over the world.
More important, her six kids, which she referred to as her life’s work, all grew up to be really good people, in no small measure due to her influence.
She was every bit the virtuoso as our mom as Mozart was to his compositions. And, I’m happy to report my mom was one of the happiest, most centered people I’ve ever known.
How did it happen? Because she let her inside voice, her intuition, guide her life.
And that, my friends, is the point of this Emerson nugget.
Quiet down inside and listen to yourself.
Trust what you hear, no matter how nonsensical it may seem.
Doing so will allow the Eternal to stir at your heart, work through your hands and predominate in all your being.