I just read a great article over at Raptitude.com about Ralph Waldo Emerson and I am intrigued. I will certainly be reading more from him and at Raptitude.
But It was this Emerson quote and David’s critique that really caught my eye.
“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. — `Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Remembering this quote has protected me from so many instances of shame and self-doubt for things I’ve said and stances I’ve taken. One truth I keep encountering again and again is that one cannot stay the same person throughout life. As we experience more and more, our perspectives change and consequently so do our beliefs. Change is the unchangable state of the universe, so how could one’s beliefs stay the same throughout life?
Yet society seems to value a certain consistency of belief. We are expected not just to share our opinions, but to be them, to swear to them as a lifelong conviction. People proudly declare, “I am a conservative. I am a Christian. I am a Democrat.” If you equate your beliefs with yourself in this way, there is no room to ever genuinely reconsider, not without an insurmountable bias towards the beliefs you’ve already embodied. You’ll always feel a compulsion to protect those beliefs, as viscerally as if it’s your internal organs that are threatened, because you consider them to be just as much a part of you.
When someone is that afraid of being contradicted, they are no longer concerned with the truth, only with protecting their priceless investment in what they have said. To honor a statement you made yesterday as a binding declaration of who you are is a tragic, yet extremely common mistake. This is the fundamental error that plagues humanity: to mistake one’s ego for oneself. Enforcing an impossible, lifelong consistency in what you say and believe can only lead to dishonesty and despair.
Someone whose opinions change freely with experience is clearly someone who is not guided by dogma or the expectations of others, but instead by a clear internal compass of inquiry and honesty. To such a “pure and wise spirit,” it is far more important to seek the truth than to be regarded as having had it all along. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Emerson.
Whenever I feel a pang of regret for something I’ve said, I remember that all I did was speak what I thought at the time in hard words, even if today I speak different ones. It’s only human.
If more people, god fearing and atheist, acted like this we’d be doin’ pretty good.