A Crime Against The Rational Mind

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Though it has become quite well-known, this quote was originally penned in Emerson’s essay on true individuality called Self-Reliance. In the essay, he argues the importance of embracing your distinctive nature and living free from the bonds of social conformity. According to Emerson, projecting the secondhand opinion of others is a sign of a wasted life.

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I used to experience panic attacks in grade school whenever I did something that accidentally went against the popular flow. It seems silly now, but back then it felt like life or death.

This may be a natural part of child development, but adults feel this way too. Politics, hollywood, and social issues all force us to decide how we will relate ourselves to the world. And I agree with Emerson that how we evaluate ourselves matters infinitely more than whether we ruffle a few feathers or reflect the values of a preferred group. Do I perfectly embody this virtue? Absolutely not, but life is a process, and I am at least at peace with that.

Take a step back and think about it.

You are utterly unique, a thumbprint on the universe, a snowflake caught for a moment in the mysterious orbit of space and time. And unlike the migrating, pack-dwelling, instinct-driven creatures that share our world, you have the capacity to disagree with your nature. Your reason and will power gives you the inherent authority to discipline your mind against the beckoning social tendencies that drive your animal brain.

You have a value, and the breadth of it can never be fully understood, but suffice it to say that no one has ever dreamed your dreams, believed your beliefs, or thought your thoughts exactly as you have. Your genetic nature and life experiences are yours alone, and together they show you the world through a colorful lens in a way it has never been seen before.

You with those unmatched irises, with those data-packed helices of DNA. You are one of a kind, but your dental impression and sprawling neurological branches don’t hold a candle to the intricate vastness of your perception. Your perspective is unparalleled. So look out at the world, and for God’s sake tell us what you see—but only, demands Emerson, if it is born of your self-reliance.

A secondhand opinion is a crime against your rational mind, but so is an opinion based on nothing. Do your own research! Hold the purity of facts and truth in high regard. You will quickly find that doing so allows you to consider the opinions of others more critically, which in turn empowers you to release your own opinions and accept the merits of someone else’s perspective.

Be mindful of the things you represent. If you spend a lot of time on social media, be especially alert as it is much easier to project thoughtless opinions when the accountability is limited to a few lines of rebuttal text or an impersonal “like” or “dislike” symbol.

Emerson claims that, to be a genius, you must not let the world dictate who you are, but instead dictate who you are to the world.

This is not a message of blind rebellion against popular opinion. Quite the opposite. It’s a call to consider all things by their facts through the unique lens of your perspective and not waste time trying to maneuver your way through the world by someone else’s “private heart.” Living honestly in this way sets us on a path of self-discovery that will expose us to genuine correction and profound evolution.

Why did this topic evoke such a passionate response from Emerson? He answers with a single sentence. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”


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