A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Learning to Listen to Myself (and Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Painting by Claude Monet [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Painting by Claude Monet [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


It’s strange but true that it’s easier to listen to other people’s voices than to my own. I believe it’s not only a matter of stillness—stepping far enough back from the clamor of the world to be able to hear the whispers of my heart; it’s also a matter of assertiveness. I’ve got to claim my right to feel whatever I’m feeling and believe that I might have something to say that’s worth saying. 

I’m turning thirty soon. I spent most of my life listening to other people rather than myself and constantly bending over backwards to please everyone—my family, teachers, peers, and especially “God” as I was taught to conceive of him. I deemed my own thoughts, desires, feelings, and even needs unimportant. My place was to submit, to serve, to sacrifice, to bow down.

But no more. The past several years of my life have been years of separation and reinvention, years of letting my long-squashed-down inner self rise up and bloom in the sunlight. I’ve come a long way, but I still sometimes struggle to remember that I am a person who is worthy of the same deference that I formerly gave everyone else.

I’m working on it, as my faithful blog readers already know. I’m learning to prioritize self-care and to set boundaries with people (and—just as importantly—with social media and technology). But boundaries and self-care, both essential elements of a healthy inner life, require that I first know what I need, which requires knowing how I feel. And that is not always as easy as it sounds. One thing that helps tremendously with self-awareness is practicing mindfulness and meditation or even just taking regular time to sit in solitary quiet or walk alone in nature—anything that helps me hush the sound of everyone else’s voices in my mind so that I can hear my own loud and clear.

The ability to really listen to myself, I’m realizing, is also essential to being the type of writer I aspire to be. Great literary writing, at least in my experience, describes life in ways that surprise me but that I completely relate to; it portrays things I’ve always felt but never thought to express. How is this feat accomplished? The answer, I’ve concluded, is listening to one’s inner self—capturing and really believing one’s most fleeting impressions (and then recording them and using them in one’s writing). I must believe myself. Not believe in myself, though that is important too. I must actually believe myself. Trust myself. Allow my thoughts and feelings to matter.

So I’m slowly learning to do that. But thankfully, I don’t have to do it alone! Not only do I have a few close friends who are likewise journeying toward healthier grasps of assertiveness, I also have what I consider the most wonderful essay ever written to help me in this pursuit: “Self-reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (full text here).

Granted, the essay is sometimes unnecessarily abstruse, and in several places I think he takes his ideas way too far. I don’t philosophically subscribe to his Transcendentalist views of reality, though I can appreciate his tenets metaphorically; and despite my value of assertiveness, I do also value (perhaps partly because I’m a woman) compassion, charity, empathy, and–at least to a certain degree–peacemaking, while Emerson seems ready to chuck those out. But the essay’s many passages about trusting one’s intuition and unapologetically being one’s true self resonate with me like trumpets, gongs, and drums heralding a parade of amazing new possibilities in my life.

There have been echoes of these passages in what I’ve said so far. For example, he writes, “Let us never bow and apologize more.” And “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” Here are some of my other favorite gems from the essay (and I’ve shared some of them previously on this blog), though there are still many more wonderful passages you’ll have to discover for yourself.

On the importance of listening to ourselves, and our tendency not to:

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.”

On pressure to conform to cultural conventions:

“These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood [strength, individuality] of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

On people telling you how you should live:

“What I must do is all that concerns me, and not what the people think. This rule…is the harder, because 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 world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Some simple but delicious morsels on self-reliance:

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

“Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart.”

On declaring one’s independence (I love this passage so much that I memorized its whole paragraph):

“Say to them… ‘I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions…I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth.’”

The second sentence below is possibly my favorite line of the whole essay, because it encapsulates my core problem of, as I recently expressed it, choosing my own empowerment versus worrying about other people’s feelings:

“But so [by speaking the honest truth, as in the quote directly above] may you give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility.”

(In other words, I can’t violate my own feelings in order to protect someone else’s!!!)

On taking care of ourselves first so that we can then help others:
(This sentence [below] is one of those needlessly obscure passages. What he means is that we should not rely on other people for our basic sense of inner wellbeing, but only on ourselves; and when we do, we will become steady rocks in the midst of everyone else’s ups and downs.)

“Ask nothing of men, and in the endless mutation, thou only firm column must presently appear the upholder of all that surrounds thee.”

Of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson is far from the only person saying these things. He just happens to have said them often and incredibly eloquently. But here are a couple of other quotes on the steadiness that comes with self-trust:

From the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling:

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too

…[Then] Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!”

(I prefer to say “be mature” instead of “be a man.”)

From the book I’m reading as an initial toe-dip into the waters of meditating, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Short Meditations by Susan Gregg:

“I [tell my students] that if they put their trust in me, in society, in another person, or their mind, they will always be disappointed. But if instead they learn to listen to their spirit and place their trust in that innate, inner wisdom, they will never be disappointed. Trust is an internal journey. Trusting yourself is empowering and very freeing. No one has your answers except you.”

So that is the journey I’m on. Thanks for listening. May we all grow much more familiar with our “still, small voice inside”!


9 comments on “Learning to Listen to Myself (and Ralph Waldo Emerson)

  1. Stefanie
    February 23, 2016

    Wonderful distinction between believing yourself and believing in yourself. Both are important but very different things. And yay for Emerson! I love him so much. He does greatly value compassion, charity, empathy and peacemaking and writes about them in other essays so don’t sell him short on those particular values!


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      February 23, 2016

      Thanks, Stefanie! I am very glad to hear that I might be wrong about Emerson’s values! I’ve read some of his other essays but apparently not the ones to which you refer; and his language in several places in this essay seems strongly against those values. But as with the Transcendental parts, I can see where he is coming from and even appreciate those points obliquely. The language he uses just seems to go a bit too far. For example, on charity: he says, “Are they _my_ pooor? …I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.” I completely understand but also question this narrow sense of clannishness. Another example, on empathy: “We come to them who weep foolishly, and sit down and cry for company, instead of imparting to them truth and health through electric shocks, putting them once more in communication with their own reason.” This is too excessively macho for my taste, though I understand where he’s coming from. There is perhaps a time and place for this kind of “Pull yourself together, Man!” advice, but in my own experience a sympathetic, largely silent companionship is usually much more effective in helping people help themselves.

      Regardless, I’m happy to know another Emerson fan! Oh, but I think I had already guessed that, because I remember seeing a mention on your blog that you have a cat named Waldo. 🙂 And the other is Dickens, if I’m remembering correctly. What great cat names!!


      • Stefanie
        February 23, 2016

        Emerson can come across as harsh sometimes but he means well 🙂 He was a great abolitionist and in the beginning against the Civil War because he didn’t think war was a good solution. I’ve read all of Emerson’s essays, made a project of it several years ago, and he can actually be very funny. And yes, one of my cats is Waldo after Emerson 🙂 Have you read his essay Nature? Experience is also very good. And I really enjoyed his book Conduct of Life. I don’t always agree with him but the way he thinks so deeply about things and expresses those thoughts so beautifully I can really appreciate!


        • Sarrah J. Woods
          February 24, 2016

          Yes, Emerson has an exceptional way with words! I’ve been gradually reading “Nature”–I at least read from it each time we go camping. 🙂 I will have to check out Experience and Conduct of Life. Thanks for the info!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. emilievardaman
    February 24, 2016

    A powerful journey you’re on!
    When you are nearing seventy (as I am) you will look back and be glad you began this quest at such a young age.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      February 24, 2016

      Thank you so much, Emilie! That means a lot to me. I have a deep respect for the experience of those in the older generations who have lived through so much more than I have. So I really appreciate your encouragement.


  3. Pingback: Learning to Listen to Myself (and Ralph Waldo Emerson) | nantongoharriet1

  4. Sarah Brentyn
    May 25, 2016

    I love this whole thing. ❤️ The quotes are fantastic, too, and I was going to comment on them but then I saw Rudyard Kipling’s… I absolutely love that.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      May 25, 2016

      Thanks, Sarah! So glad you love these thoughts and can relate to them too (I presume). The quotes, as well as the basic concept of listening to myself, are continuing to work magic in my life. The more I listen to myself, the better I get at doing it. But I’m still not very good at it, somehow!

      Liked by 1 person

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