Literary Quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”        – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I found this quote attributed to Emerson while sifting through the notebook I keep of quotations that strike me in some favorable. way. This one has obvious general appeal. Though, it certainly can be debated.

Trying to be yourself is, and probably always has been, a hardship for most people. We all know that being the odd man out is difficult, and when you dance to the music of your own orchestra, you often find yourself being the odd man out. 

When I was in high school, that period of life notorious for pressure to fit in, a very strange hairstyle became popular. I remember being in a bathroom, a girl would dash inside in some intense, often frenetic, state looking as one might imagine Alice’s worried rabbit looking as he hustled to his “very important date.”  She’d throw her big book bag conveniently in a sink, pull out a gargantuan can of hairspray, start blabbering something meaningless and judgemental about someone else, throw her head down as though attempting to touch her toes, and proceed to spray her bangs straight so that when she once again stood erect said bangs would be vertical.

But, there was one girl who made an art of this style. She had long jet black hair, perhaps reaching down to the middle of her back. And, her hair reached upwards, too. Up, up, up or so it seemed because those bangs did not seem merely hairsprayed, they seemed tarred into standing at attention. 

We’d watch her on the stairs between classes going about her day and we’d stare. Well, I know I’d stare.  Once, I heard another student remark with to a friend on the oddity of the hairdo, but “I kind of like that she does her own thing. You know?”

I can’t imagine what the family of my classmate with the crown of raven-colored bangs on her head must have said to her. Were they unusual like her and, thus, perhaps, supportive? Did her mother or father say things like, Just don’t walk with your head down; you’ll put someone’s eye out. Did they get angry?

I must say that my classmates never seemed to be snarky about her. Score one for teenage acceptance. Whatever the case, she walked straight ahead, as though she cared not a whit about others’ opinions. I guess it was her teenage way of saying I care about my own opinions; yours, not so much.

Obviously, she was being herself – or, at least, some incarnation of it she was trying out at the moment as teens are wont and, arguably, need to do. Was anyone trying to make her something different? If so, she seemed to be holding up fine.

But that is a rather superficial example that I give merely because the memory tickles me; it is not the reason why Emerson’s quotation speaks to me and, no doubt, to many others. 

For that, I am tempted to do a bit of a tribute to a newsperson/commentator whom I have over the years been fairly besotted with and, also, disappointed in. Keith Olbermann, formerly of MSNBC,  had a rather in-your-face style of “special comments” on his show Countdown which ended its run abruptly last Friday. As generally I found myself on the same political page as he was, and as his way with words was kind of unmatched in television news, and as he genuinely seemed to believe in and care about what he was saying I watched him with my family rather faithfully. I think that for many liberals he was like a progressive knight in shining armour that helped pull them through those crazy Bush years when we all needed moral support. It’s no wonder people are a bit bent out of shape at his departure from MSNBC. Or his ouster?? Who knows.

So, we all know that in today’s political climate, when you can be called a socialist just because you want everyone to have access to the same good healthcare – shudders! – that getting up on TV, even cable TV, and saying some of the stuff he said would cause waves that could potentially wipe out a program and do damage to the network itself. Still, there were times when I nearly sat agog in front of the screen and thought, He just said what?

But he did. And, frankly, there were times when I thought he went overboard. Those were irritating times. Like, for instance, when he once called Roger Ailes “fat-ass.” That was a long time ago, but I tend to think Roger Ailes’s fat-ass has had nothing more to do with Roger Ailes’s politics than Keith’s has to do with his or mine with my own beliefs.  Say what you will – and I’ve complained plenty about his Twitter zingers to others in the Twittersphere (if that’s what you call it) – at least he seems to have been himself.

And, so, it’s interesting, isn’t it? On the one hand, we can look at Emerson’s great quote and see where it falls short, as so many perfectly great quotes do. That is, if being yourself means being rude, perhaps you should actually change. But, presenting even your worst side to the public is admirable in a way. No hiding your mess in the closet when company comes. It’s honest. And, perhaps most importantly, standing for your principles is an age-old act of honor, and certainly not always an easy one. It is possibly “the greatest accomplishment.”

So, I guess I should congratulate belatedly the girl with the spiky, upward pointed bangs. And, I should thank God that there are people in the world who take stands on important issues the rest of us just wish we could yell from a bully-pulpit.

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