Ralph Waldo Emerson..a reflection

From the Essence of Wisdom, page 8

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyph to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life before he apprehends it as truth.”

It’s true. But it makes for slippery, dangerous slopes.

We have already answered the questions we will have, by our actions which preceded them. Ask a person what their values are- what do they consider important in life? Now sit back and listen to the answer. It will probably be a little prettier than their previous answers, already recorded in their checkbook, or credit card statement.

The existentialist question that is reborn sometime during the freshman year of every young person in college- Why am I here?- can easily be answered by anyone looking around that young student’s dormitory room. The freshman may not yet perceive that their question has already been answered, but it has.

In my day, the answer was usually Raquel Welch! Her poster from the movie “1,000,000 B.C.” was on the wall of every male freshman I knew. (You remember that poster; Raquel was clad in animal skin- a single muskrat?- which revealed her to be anything but Neanderthal.) Why am I here? The answer we might have given with our brain and lips was drowned out by the shouting of the poster.


The pyramid of empty Schlitz cans against the wall probably had much to say as well.

Others have fewer questions about us than we have about ourselves. They see our actions- the ways we live- as answering most of the questions they might have about us. We are always acting out the real truths we believe. We may be giving lip service to greater truths, but- if they are greater truths- why aren’t they showing?

Why am I here? A lot of people are stuck with the answers of others that they have appropriated from others (because that’s the easy thing to do) or have had forced on them. The latter was evidenced dramatically in the mid-70s, when Patti Hearst, California heiress, was kidnapped by something called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Within weeks of isolation from her family, and immersion in the SLA’s bank-robbing approach to life, Patti had “become” SLA. Ideas can be forced on anyone through fear and intimidation.

But most people are walking, talking, acting examples of truths which have been eased into because they cause the least friction, and enable them to feel like part of the team. Those appropriated ideas also involve little thinking. Let’s call it the “pink shirt syndrome.”

Ten years ago, the streets of Dallas, and most American cities, I assume, were suddenly filled with men wearing pink shirts and- often- pink ties. Never before had pink been a color bought by so many men, but suddenly, there it was, piled high in the Neiman-Marcus shirt department, and worn first by the executives who shop there. Before long, pink had become the “power” color of the moment and to fit in at the sales meeting or the bar after the meeting, pink was de rigueur.

Others’ ideas are seductive. But they are also pinkly goofy at times. (In the 80s, at various times, those ideas had been chartreusely, then yellowy goofy at times, too.)

Why am I here? The answer we’ve already given is sometimes so shallow as to be imperceptible.

Our truths need always to be examined. And we begin to do that by looking at what we’ve been doing today, for the last year, and for a lifetime. Because no matter how flowery and grand the truths are that we think we live by, we may have gotten ourselves stuck in the rut of someone else’s truths or, worse, compromised our own.

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