Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ralph Waldo Emerson was such an inveterate optimist that his good friends (and professional curmudgeons) Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne doubted his judgment.  Melville put pen to paper to describe him as having a “defect in the region of the heart.”

His sunny disposition has long interested me, given his heart wrenching series of personal tragedies, a childhood of financial anxiety, career changes as he shed early ones that didn’t suit him, and a trust and confidence busting period in American history.  I would have expected a pessimist.  Instead, he emerged from this crucible of experiences with optimism, and with something worthy to say to the many of us today, similarly burdened by sorrows, and weighed down with worry about finances, jobs, and the future of our country.  He is fine patron saint or namesake for this church.

Let me tell you something about his life, and I’ll suggest a possible reason why he was so optimistic.  You may disagree, and knowing you, you’ll let me know over coffee hour!  I look forward to different interpretations.

Emerson was born in 1803, in Boston.  His father was a Unitarian minister, as, in fact, had been about seven prior generations of Emersons – either Unitarian or Congregationalist ministers.  The first tragedy Emerson was old enough to remember, when he was seven or eight, was that his dad died, probably of stomach cancer, leaving a young widow, pregnant for the eighth time.  The congregation let the family stay in the rectory until they installed a new minister, and paid her a condolence stipend of $25/mo for a year, but soon Mrs. Emerson was on her own, with six surviving children under the age of ten, two of whom, in the language of Emerson’s journals, were retarded and insane. 

To make ends meet, her sister, Mary, and she opened a boarding house in Beacon Hill, Boston.  She never remarried.  Imagine how financially vulnerable the family must have felt.  Will the new lodger stay the full term?  Will he pay on time?  Will he be a big eater?  Will the price of meat go up?  The children did odd jobs to help out.  How isolated did they feel?  They were more intellectually oriented than their economic peers, and far poorer than their social and educational peers, and to top it off – at least from an adolescent’s perspective,  by age fourteen, Emerson towered over nearly everybody he knew, at almost six feet tall – this in an age when people like Stephen F. Austin were 5’ 4”! I imagine this upbringing influenced his subsequent writings advocating self-reliance, don’t you? 

The three college able sons worked to put each other through school. For example, William opened a school for young ladies, so that Emerson could attend Harvard College (college is what high school aged education was called).  While there, he worked as a waiter in the school’s commons (probably for the free food) and also served as something of a gopher for the President’s office.  He graduated only in the middle of class, but perhaps that was partly because he read so widely outside the prescribed curriculum.  For instance, his Aunt Mary and he were very interested in the new English translations of Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.  Do you find Buddhist influences in such writings as The Over Soul?  I do, too.

When he graduated, he taught at the school so that William could attend Divinity School, but he didn’t take to teaching, or at least to teaching young ladies, so once his brother’s education was complete, he closed the school and cast about for a new career.  I imagine that many of you can empathize with his situation – your first job lands in your lap but after a few years you realize it isn’t a good fit.  Then you have to figure out what might be. 

Well, what was an impecunious, educated young man to do?  Since he had no capital, he couldn’t start a business or invest in one.  He had already rejected  teaching.  He’d never shown any inclination toward medicine.  So perhaps more from a sense of limited alternatives than a calling, he entered his father’s and brother’s profession, and enrolled in Harvard Divinity School.

The year 1829 was an eventful one for Emerson.  The happy events were that, at 26 years old, he was ordained and became an associate minister for a Unitarian church in Boston and he married, an 18 year old named Ellen.  A great sorrow was that he had to institutionalize his little brother, in an Asylum for the Insane, for increasing bouts of violence. 

This grief was soon supplanted by another.  His young bride had tuberculosis, and her condition worsened so rapidly that her mother had to move in with the young couple to care for her while Emerson juggled with his new ministerial duties.  Sadly, she died, when she was 20.  Despite what must have been a predictable outcome, Emerson was distraught at her death.  He wrote in his journals that when she had been dead for six weeks he felt compelled to open her coffin to convince himself that she was really gone.  Some of you have shared your grief experiences with me, and have said that you have the strongest sensation that your loved one is right behind you or beside you.  I bet that is how Emerson felt.

Like many grieving people, he suffered a lost off faith around this time, and also, I think, a mystical experience.  He had become increasingly disenchanted with Unitarian theology, describing it as “corpse cold” for focusing on dusty old books and long dead people when it should focus on the living and the loving and the giving and the grieving people right here and now.  In my very favorite description of Unitarians, he called us “God’s Frozen People”.  And truth be told, he had decided that he didn’t like pastoral care and didn’t really like being a minister.  He wrote that to minister to others, he decided that he needed to leave the ministry.  The man for whom we have named our church for 50 years, resigned from his congregation after only 3 years.

Year later, in 1837, Harvard Divinity School invited him to deliver the Commencement Address.  Apparently they didn’t know these views!  Imagine being one of the enthusiastic graduates and their doting parents hearing the following, no-holds-barred denunciation of their chosen faith!  Christianity "dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus."… and …has turned Jesus into a "demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe  Osiris or Apollo.  He added that since God is in all men, “special miracles” don’t need to occur; revelation happens every day to anyone who pays attention. Instead of dwelling on such issues, he encouraged preachers to preach from their hearts and from life, not from dusty books, as he contemptuously referred to the Bible.  One critic said his views were an insult to religion.  Others decried him as an atheist (of course!)

Once he quit his job, I wonder if he felt like a failure.  He’d rejected two professions.  What next?  Wisely, he took a year to decide.  His wife had inherited some money and he used it to travel to Europe, where he met many of the great thinkers and writers he admired, including Samuel Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, who were also interested in Asian influences in thought and theology.

When he returned, he married a second time (in 1835) a woman named Lydia (whom he called Lydian) by whom he had four children.  The oldest, his namesake, died at 5 of scarlet fever.  For any of you who are grieving now, I’d like to recommend a touching poem he wrote, called Threnody, about how everything in his home reminds him of the sweet little son, now gone.

During this time, he started his third career, a prototypical Emersonian one:  he made it up and relied solely on himself.  Although he had discovered that he didn’t like teaching in a school or ministering in a church, he decided to become an itinerant lecturer, not affiliated with a school or church, although he spoke at both, in lectures that combined spiritual and academic subjects in his famously stream of consciousness style.  I think the closest person to him today might be Depok Chopra.  Emerson rented a hall, put up flyers, sold tickets and delivered speeches on topics as varied as Nature, American Scholar, The Conservative, Idealism, Manners, and others on famous men of letters or history.   As you can imagine, his new career was not very lucrative, but his wife supported him, emotionally, and perhaps financially, too.  He later started a magazine, too, The Dial, in 1840 with Margaret Fuller, “to promote the constant evolution of the truth not the petrification of opinion.” He turned some of his lectures into articles for the magazine and essays for self-published books of essays. 

Emerson became extremely popular and respected.  I think the reasons are threefold: his personal demeanor, his content and delivery, and timing.  Haven’t you sometimes wondered if a charismatic person on the national scene would have been as effective ten years earlier or ten years later?  Let me tell you of the context of his growing lectureship so you can appreciate his appeal.

In 1837, the country was plunged in a great depression that lasted five-six years in various places.  Just like our more recent financial debacles, there was rampant finger pointing.  Some blamed foreign speculators (the British).  Others blamed two presidents in a row, Jackson and Van Buren, for failing to prevent it, and failing to assuage it once it was underway.  Of the 850 banks in the nation, half folded or closed doors, and this in a time with no deposit insurance.  Cities as large as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York closed every bank within their borders.  Imagine what this meant.  Shop keepers couldn’t get credit for inventory.  Farmers couldn’t get credit for next year’s crops.  Parents yanked kids out of schools (there were very few free public schools) not only because they couldn’t afford the tuition but also because they needed to replace the employees they couldn’t afford with their kids in the fields and businesses.  Sound eerily familiar?  It was a very disconcerting time. 

Not surprisingly, the 1840s saw an influx of religious revivals. The Presbyterians were preaching predestination and the Calvinists were talking about sinners deserving punishment.  Meanwhile, down the street is a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He didn’t have the bombastic oratorical style so popular then.  Rather, he walked to the podium, a tall, thin man dressed in sober black like the New England preacher he once was, and in what has been described and a deep and resonant voice, he began to talk.  He spoke as though he were thinking out loud, and he trusted and respected the audience enough that he was letting them “listen in.”  One of his quotes is that “a friend is one before whom I can think out loud.”  That is the impression he gave.  Though his topics were many and varied, a frequent theme was this:  Trust yourself.  You can trust yourself.  That little voice inside of you that you might call intuition?  That is God talking to you.  God is in everything – and that includes you.  So would he condemn you to Hell?  Inconceivable.  Are you an incorrigible sinner?  How could that be? 

How could one be a pessimist with that view?  To Emerson, God is in him and in everyone he meets.  He encouraged them to be self-reliant, and by trusting the authority of themselves, to respect themselves, too.  Imagine the impact on women.  He said you don’t have to experience a second hand relationship to God through a priest or a book, and by extension, other authority figures.    He encouraged everyone – men and women to trust that wee voice within to tell them what is right, what is good, what to do, and to seek or question when they don’t hear that voice.

Imagine the impact on an audience at this time.  They probably felt like they couldn’t trust banks, employers, the government, maybe even neighbors in what must have been a dog-eat-dog time.

Women loved him:  He didn’t talk down to them.  He avoided patriarchal language in discussing God.  Instead, he tended to use terms like “Over-Soul” or Nature.  

One of my favorite stories about his audience may be apocryphal, but it seems to capture a truth.  A journalist noticed a scrub woman who attended several of his lectures.  Intrigued, he asked her, “Do you understand what he is saying?” “Nope,” she said, “Not a word.”   “Well, then, why do you come?”   “Because,” she explained,“ I like to see Mr. Emerson standing up there, talking to me like I am just as good as he is.”  Isn’t that a lovely thing to say about a man who, in the latter half of his career, was the most famous American thinker on both sides of the Atlantic (along with Mark Twain)?    

Emerson was a man of integrity who inspired confidence and trust.  I believe that this was because he lived his values; he did trust himself.  As he became more famous, politicians and journalists sought his endorsements. He refused to be the poster boy for politicians or others’ issues but he didn’t shy away from controversial subjects important to him. He just picked and chose.  For example, he spoke out against slavery in 1844, was against the forced relocation of Cherokee Indians, publicly supported women’s suffrage and higher education as early as 1855, and refused to support the Fugitive Slave Law, when passed in 1861.  Some of these positions were not popular with his American audiences, as he he saw, traveling by train all the way to California giving lectures, and some of his positions astonished the Europeans when he traveled there for a year. 

When people disagreed or condemned his thinking, he never argued back or put down his opponent.  He let his lecture or essay stand where it was.  His ego was not ruffled by others' disagreement.   

To me, Emerson is a wonderful embodiment of 6 of our denomination's 7 principles: inherent worth and dignity of all people, the practices of justice and compassion, encouragement of free and responsible spiritual growth, right of conscience and the democratic process, and respect for the interdependent web of life.  The only one I don't see directly represented in his life and writings is the principle of a world community.

Sadly, his memory and some of his verbal skills faded about 12 years before his death, to the point where he could not lecture any more.  It is hard to tell from health references in his journals and others whether the cause was some sort of dementia. Touching, to me, is the title of his last book, “Society and Solitude.”

In these latter years, he was so beloved, that when his house burned to the ground, admirers paid to rebuild it. What a wonderful validation. 

Emerson did not regard himself as a philosopher, but as a thinker and he thought a lot: 50 volumes of writing.  “Essential writings: 850 pages.  He said, “you are what you think all day long.” 

Was he naturally optimistic, or was his attitude nurtured in the crucible of repeated grief?  Was his theology sunny because he was an innate optimist, or did he become an optimist because of his theology?  Perhaps he just chose to think in this way, all day long.

Every generation seeks a leader, a role model, a soul model.  Who is yours? Who encourages the best aspect of your nature?  Who encourages you to stand up for what you believe is right, even if others criticize you for it? Emerson was it for a generation torn asunder by the Civil War, as people strove to pick up the pieces of their lives, their families, their states.

Also, each one of you is a role model for others.  Many of you are role models for me. What do you want your legacy to be?  What do you encourage in others?  And is that what you want to convey?  Is your theology consistent with  your demeanor and lifestyle?  Look at yourself from the outside, from time to time. 

Each of us as individuals, and together as a group can be Emersonian.  Each of us can pick and choose which issues to focus on: when to be quiet and when to stand up for something in an outlet that is effective.  Each of us needs to be self-reliant, and pick ourselves up out of disappointment or grief or self-blame.  Like Emerson and his mother, many of us will have to adjust our hopes and dreams; we’ll need inspiration.  And according to Emerson, that source is very close:  it is here and now, inside you. 

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