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Who Is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance?

In today’s society, it is very easy to allow ourselves to conform to the expectations and thoughts of the people we look up to or spend our time with. However, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance,” he goes into great detail about his belief that it is very important for people to formulate their opinions according to their own minds, rather than with the influence of those around them. This concept is one that is hard for us to comprehend because, of course, everything we know has been told to us in one way or another by someone else.

Therefore, every opinion we have has been influenced by those same people, right? To an extent, yes, but as Emerson discusses in his essay, while we may gain our basic sets of information from others, there is still a point at which we must ask ourselves, should I agree with what I have been told is correct, or should I go against these things and believe something else? This question crosses the minds of many of us as we get older and begin to realize that there are opposing viewpoints to all these things our parents have told us throughout our childhoods.

In my case, one of the biggest of these moments was when I began to hear more and more about the topic of homosexuality. I knew what it was and I knew that it was an issue in our country because these people were denied certain rights, such as marriage, but at the time, I did not truly understand that there were people who believed that homosexuals were “bad people. ” However, at a certain point, I began to realize that my parents, due to their age and their upbringings, were not completely comfortable with the idea of homosexuality and gay marriage.

I then began to learn that the religion of Christianity, the religion I had spent my entire life living by, also saw homosexuality as a negative thing. However, despite my background and the beliefs of those around me, I have adhered to Emerson’s belief that we should not let those around us alter our opinions, and have allowed myself to decide on my own that I support homosexuality. Having differences in beliefs on a subject like gay marriage can set up a barrier between people that, at some points, can be hard to look past.

For example, whenever the topic of gay marriage comes up in my house, a bit of an awkward silence occurs. My parents and I both know that our opinions on the matter differ, and therefore, do not want to get into a big discussion about it. In most other situations I have absolutely no problem expressing my feelings about the subject, but because I want to respect my parents’ opinions, I tend to keep my words to myself.

I believe this aspect of our relationship ties into David Bohm’s description of communication blocks in his work: “On Communication. Bohm perfectly expresses my situation with my parents when he says “it is easy for each one of us to see that other people are ‘blocked’ about certain questions, so that without being aware of it, they are avoiding the confrontation of contradictions in certain ideas that may be extremely dear to them” (p. 16). The only difference between Bohm’s words and my situation is that it is not just my parents who avoid the subject, I do as well. Although I rarely express my opposing opinion on the matter to my parents, I still feel very strongly about it, and I hold to my personal belief that homosexuality is not a negative thing.

I agree with Emerson’s expression that “to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius” (p. 67). Clearly my parents’ negative opinion on this issue has had no effect on my decision to support it, therefore I have successfully followed Emerson’s wishes, at least in regard to this certain topic. Another area of my life from which I have been told that gay marriage is wrong is at my church. A very important part of my life is my relationship with God, and because of this many are surprised to hear my supportive stance on the issue of gay marriage.

Much like the way conversation on the topic tends to go with my parents, I often feel unwilling or even sometimes genuinely unable to speak my mind around others at my church simply because so many other Christians feel very strongly against homosexuality. It can sometimes be hard to know that something you believe in so strongly offends so many people around you. However, as Emerson states in his essay: “it is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (p. 71).

These words express my feelings on the matter perfectly because I often struggle to hold to my opinion on gay equality when I am with those who feel negatively towards it. At the same time, I completely agree with Emerson’s words because I think it is extremely important to stand up for what you believe in, whether the people surrounding you agree or not. Much like the situation with my parents, even though my entire life has been built on my pastor and others at my church occasionally telling me that they believe homosexuality is a sin and that God frowns upon it, I have still made my own decision to believe the opposite.

Although I believe that for the most part I have managed to push past the opinions of those around me to make the decision to support gay marriage and homosexuality, I do see ways in which I have taken to heart other aspects of things that these same sources have taught me all throughout my life to make this decision. I believe that a lot of the morals and values that both my parents and my religion have taught me up to this point in my life actually provide backup for the many reasons I have made the decision to be in support of this topic.

For example, all throughout my life my parents have intensely stressed the fact that I should love everybody, despite any differences. It continues to baffle me that they can claim to live by this rule themselves, but still disagree with homosexuality. Because I feel so strongly about this very important rule of life, I have made it my goal to apply it in every aspect of the world around me, including homosexuality. Aside from that and other things my parents have taught me throughout my life, I believe my church has also instilled certain ideas in me that guided me in making my decision to believe gay marriage is acceptable.

For one, both my pastor and my youth group leader have said on more than one occasion that every sin is equal, whether it is as big as a murder or as small as a lie, no sin is worse than any other sin in God’s eyes. If this is the case, what right do we, as sinners ourselves, have to judge another person because of their so-called sin? This is the main belief that those at my church have given me that has had any influence in my decision to approve of gay marriage and homosexuality. Another is simply God’s order to love your neighbor. I believe that if I am telling my “neighbor” that their sexuality is wrong, I am disobeying God’s command.

It is in these ways that I realize, though my actual opinion opposes these other peoples’, I still picked up other things they taught me in choosing my stance on this matter. With all this in mind, I believe that our opinions are definitely consciously chosen. Even though there may be outside influence in the reasoning behind choosing a certain opinion, there is still a moment of choice. I think that this is the case for everyone, whether they consciously choose to agree with the things they have been raised to believe or consciously choose not to.

Everyone has equal opportunity to change their opinions at all times, no matter what other people believe. The decision to break away from the opinions a person has been brought up to believe is a tough one, but it can be a necessary one. As Emerson expresses, in every persons’ life there is eventually a chance to say “I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you” (p. 73). I completely agree with Emerson that this is the healthiest way a person can live: free of conformity and free from meeting other people’s expectations.

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