How Shall I Live? I Can’t Solve the Issues of Our Time

That’s the question that Ralph Waldo Emerson posed in his book, The Conduct of Life. He wrote, “The question of the times resolved itself into a practical question of the conduct of life. How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times” (943, Note: These quotes are taken from Emerson: Essays and Lectures. You can read this book online here.). And what was his answer? That we are to do good, to make a contribution.

The Goal
Emerson believed that we all had an obligation not merely to do something good for ourselves but to do something that would make a significant difference in the world. “Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer. He fails to make his place good in the world, unless he not only pays his debt, but also adds something to the common wealth” (989). Each person must increase his talents not merely bury the one they have in the ground.

The Obstacles
In seeking to do good, there are numerous obstacles. There is fate. Fate is any natural limit we encounter. In includes everything from the fact that we live on earth to the fact that we have five fingers. Everything that defines us limits us. Fate inevitably brings suffering and death.

These limitations are not an unmitigated evil. “In front of these sinister facts, the first lesson of history is the good of evil. Good is a good doctor, but Bad is sometimes a better” (1083). “The frost which kills the harvest of a year, saves the harvests of a century, by destroying the weevil or the locust” (1084). It is these challenges that give us opportunity to rise to greater heights. “We acquire the strength we have overcome. Without war, no soldier, without enemies, no hero” (1084). Steam always seemed to cause a problem by lifting houses and pots. Here was what Watt and Fulton saw: “Could he lift pots and roofs and houses so handily? He was the workman they were in search of” (959).

Fate is not the last word. “But Fate has its lord; limitation its limits; is different seen from above and from below; from within and from without” (953). What is the limit? “Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free.” Every person who does not rest passively in the face of circumstances is training to battle fate. “Every brave youth is training to ride and rule this dragon” (957).

Overcoming Fate to do Good #1: Health
In order to do good in the face of fate, the first thing we need is basic health, physical and mental. He says:

The first wealth is health. Sickness is poor-spirited, and cannot serve any one; it must husband its own resources to live. But health or fulness (sic) answers its own ends, and has to spare, runs over, and inundates the neighborhoods and creeks of other men’s necessities (972).

Health has its way of finding good to do. Sickness makes us focus on ourselves. This is our first priority, according to Emerson. “I will not here repeat the first rule of economy . . . that every man shall maintain himself,—but I will say, get health. No labor, pains, temperance, poverty, nor exercise, that can gain it, must be grudged” (1088). Without health, we will do very little good.

Overcoming Fate to do Good #2: Focus
What overcomes fate is power. This power is not merely physical. It is the intellect applied to the material world. “Every solid in the universe is ready to become fluid on the approach of the mind, and the power to flux it is the measure of the mind. If the wall remain adamant, it accuses the want of thought” (964).

So, how do we develop the power to do what we need to do? We must recognize that we can’t do everything. We have to focus. We have to choose to develop some of our powers more intensively or we will not be able to use any of our powers for real good.

This means that we have to work hard at developing our own abilities and work over a long period of time. Henry VIII said, “great is drill.” “Practice is nine tenths.” “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first” (984). “No genius can recite a ballad at first reading so well as mediocrity can at the fifteenth or twentieth reading” (ibid.). It is repetition and focus that enable us to gain the power we need in order to do good.

When it comes to wealth, we need to spend lavishly. But we need to spend lavishly on those things that are most significant. “Spend after your genius, and by system” (emphasis his, 1005). As with all our powers, we should not seek to simply preserve what we have but to advance to greater things: “The true thrift is always to spend on the higher plane; to invest and invest, with keener avarice, that he may spend in spiritual creation, and not in augmenting animal existence” (1010).

It is important here that we not get paralyzed waiting for the best decision. “[I]n our flowing affairs a decision must be made,—the best, if you can; but any is better than none. There are twenty ways of going to a point, and one is the shortest; but set out at once on one” (983). Time is short.

Overcoming Fate to do Good #3: Disruption & Discomfort

At the same time, we must be careful not to get stuck in a rut. We have to keep our eye on the bigger picture, and we have to keep challenging ourselves. The problem is that “most men are afflicted with a coldness, an incuriosity, as soon as any object does not connect with their self-love” (1017). The answer is a broad acquaintance with culture of all types. “Culture redresses his balance, puts him among his equals and superiors, revives the delicious sense of sympathy, and warns him of the dangers of solitude and repulsion” (1018).

Suffering can be valuable because it forces us to become inventive to escape it. “If there is any great thing in store for you, it will not come at the first or the second call, not in the shape of fashion, ease, and city drawing-rooms. Popularity is for dolls. ‘Steep and craggy,’ said Porphyry, ‘is the path of the gods’” (1032).

We do not have to wait for suffering, though, to obtain a disruption that will move us out of our comfort zone. “Let us learn to live coarsely, dress plainly, and lie hard. The least habit of dominion over the palate has certain good effects not easily estimated” (1027). Virtually anything that challenges us will enable us to grow and increase our options for doing good.

Conclusion: The Real Battle
Emerson concludes his book with a chapter on “Illusions.” Our tendency is to think our issue in life is with this person or that person or this thing or that thing. The real battle is a battle with the deeper issues of life. He recalls this story of Thor:

That story of Thor, who was set to drain the drinking-horn in Asgard, and to wrestle with the old woman, and to run with Lok, and presently found that he had been drinking up the sea, and wrestling with Time, and racing with Thought, describes us who are contending amind these seeming trifles, with the supreme energies of Nature (1121).

The fact is that “[r]iches and poverty are a thick or thin costume; and our life—the life of all of us—identical” (1122). The fundamental issues of life are the same, and we are all gifted with an ability to make something in the face of them, to act heroically in the face of fate for the good of us all.


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