I was browsing the literary and grammatical gifts at the Virginia Shop of the Library of Virginia recently, chuckling to myself and sometimes laughing out loud. I recommend the grammar plates for a good laugh. I also recommend the greeting cards in the shape of famous authors and philosophers: Austen, Dickenson, Poe, Fitzgerald, Twain, Emerson.
One of my early literary heroes was Emerson. Reading Emerson was slow-going at first—dense and awkward to my modern ears—and yet always thought-provoking in his confident assertions:
“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong.”
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Even today, I open his essays at any random page and invariably find some bit of advice that seems to fit what I need at that moment. So, I bought the Emerson card and taped it in a place of honor at work to remind me to open up his collected works a bit more.
With the card came this Emerson quote:
“Always do what you are afraid to do.”
He offers it in the essay “Heroism” published in 1841, describing it as advice he once overheard. He offers encouragement and admonition to aim for independence of thought—even audacity—and to stay strong in the face of criticism.
“If you would serve your brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you.”
As he does in other essays, he pushes his reader to action true to one’s convictions, even if that action proves to be “strange and extravagant” and unpopular with some. His words could be called wise words for life in many contexts including at work.
Also in “Heroism” Emerson offers examples of historical audacity and consistency. Unfortunately, those examples ended in death. He cites the unpopular views towards peace held by the Greek statesman, Phocion. He stood alone in his political stands and was ultimately executed for treason. Emerson also offers Elijah Lovejoy, the Presbyterian minister and newspaper editor killed by a mob for publishing articles against slavery in the United States. In this way and more, Emerson’s advice goes far beyond typical weekday concerns and certainly beyond the motivational “Always do what you are afraid to do.”
Suddenly, the quote means something completely different from when it stood alone.
Emerson, R. W. (1841). Heroism. Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts. Retrieved from http://www.emersoncentral.com
Greeley, H. (1837). The Murder of Lovejoy. Historycentral.com. Retrieved from http://historycentral.com/
Phocion. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/457076/Phocion