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I’ve been reading a wee bit of Ralph Waldo Emerson lately. (Yes, I realize how snooty that sounds, but hear me out because I’m really not trying to sound snooty (okay, maybe a little…)).
I mention this because, at my ripe old age of 43, I’m finding it quite fun and enlightening to go back and read the people who inspired me when I was younger. Ralph Waldo is one of those people. But I came at his work so differently then than I do now.
Context matters when it comes to art. It matters just as much from the artist’s perspective as it does to the consumer. I’ll use my relationship with Emerson’s work as an example...
When I first started reading Emerson, I was in my early 20s and was pretty libertarian in my politics (yes, it’s true). Individualism and self-sufficiency were my core values at the time. The whole idea of self-reliance (the title of one of Emerson’s most-read essays) was one that I latched onto for a good long season of my life.
What can I say? I grew up poor (in North American standards). I inherited the notion from my late father that the goal of a man’s life (yes, a MAN’s life) is to ‘make it’ financially and ‘take care of’ his family. To become self-reliant. Emerson’s work met me right there. I was heavily into New Thought and my spiritual m.o. was all about manifesting an ideal life where I didn’t need help from anyone and could instead be the one everyone else would come to for help.
Anyhow, life went on. Eventually, I saw some toxic stuff in the New Thought/Personal Development/Manifesting world. Or, maybe it’s better to say that I saw some toxicity in myself aroused from a lot of that stuff - but that’s for another conversation.
Soon thereafter, I returned to my Christian roots and became more of a partisan liberal simultaneously (weird, huh?). And suddenly, Emerson became an enemy.
I wrote him off. In his work, I saw the ideological roots of toxic individualism that has taken over in recent years. I also saw a conflict when it came to the Christian faith. My narrative could be summarized as follows: If faith means trusting in God... then self-reliance is, in a way, anti-faith since we are placing ourselves as our own gods.
Well, the other day, I came across an Emerson quote... I forget which one it was, but it drew me back to his work. So I picked up the book (yep, the one in the photo above) and started reading.
It’s like I was reading his work with totally fresh eyes. I saw his individualism, not as an anti-Christian and anti-societal way of life... But as a beautiful faith expression from someone living in the early 1800s in the US.
In his context, he and the early US Americans had the British crown bearing down on them. In those days, you either inherited land from your wealthy family line or you were poor. He saw that power had to be shifted from wealthy landowners and oppressive institutions to the individual. And I say he was right.
Even looking at his spiritual work like The Over-Soul, his faith wasn’t necessarily individualistic in the way that we use the term today. It was actually very communal (it’s very much in line with the ‘body of Christ’ stuff that we see in 1 Corinthians). He and the other well-known transcendentalists were so earthy. It’s great stuff!
In this season of my life, I’ve become a reconciliation junkie. I love falling back in love with things that I once railed and rebelled against. I also appreciate nuance more than ever. I’m very fluid on the partisan political spectrum. I’m a protestant catholic. Embracing the “both-and” brings me joy.
This is one of the things I love so much about the Christian faith. In Christ, all is reconciled. It becomes less about excluding stuff from life and more about integrating good things that we once held in a toxic way.
I’m happy to say that Ralph Waldo is back on my short-list of God-inspired people who have added to this world - and even to this Christian world. I have a lot to thank him for.
So, I’ll end by saying this... Sometimes it’s fun to go back and visit the work or art of those who once inspired you but who you maybe set down for some time. As we move through life, we change. We learn. We grow. Things are deconstructed for us. Which is hard. But there’s magic to the reintegration of a lot of those things. If we close ourselves off to them, I believe we’re missing out on a lot.
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