Self-Reliance

Yeah, I know. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay called “Self-Reliance,” and I’m not exactly going to top that, am I? Anyway, I’m not trying to rise to his level eloquence. This for example:

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

Yeah, I’m not competing with Ralph . . .

Anyway, this is about a particularly small and local kind of self-reliance: the kind that allows you to visit a museum by yourself, or eat dinner by yourself in a restaurant. I’m writing about it because I know a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable doing those things. Either they don’t feel comfortable being alone or they don’t feel comfortable having other people see that they’re alone. Those are two different things, of course — and I’ve met people who fall into both categories.

I thought I would include some pictures of me eating dinner on my last evening in Budapest, all by myself at my favorite restaurant. Here is the courtyard of the restaurant:

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I can only speak for myself of course (Ralph would probably agree with that), but I value my solitude. I love spending time with people, but if I don’t get time to spend with myself, by myself — I become quite cranky. It’s part of being an introvert, I suppose. I love to travel by myself, and one benefit of doing so is that I get to see what I want, to think my own thoughts about it rather than having to tell other people what I’m thinking or having them continually tell me what they’re thinking. My favorite hosts and guides are the ones who simply let me do what I want, and I try to be that sort of host or guide myself, when people are visiting.

So, while I love people, I also love spending time alone. I suppose that’s one reason I feel so comfortable going to a museum by myself, or sitting in a restaurant by myself. But also, I always seem to meet people that way . . .

This is the book I was reading in the restaurant: Jack Zipes’ Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. So I suppose, really, I wasn’t alone. I had the cantankerous, opinionated Zipes with me, and I had my favorite waiter to talk to, and I was surrounded by people speaking in English and Hungarian. It was lovely to sit and experience all that, without distractions.

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The other reason people feel uncomfortable being alone has nothing to do with missing other people — they would feel perfectly comfortable being alone in their houses, as long as no one could see them. It’s that being alone is accompanied by a sense of shame. It’s as though being alone implies they have no friends, that they couldn’t find anyone to go with them. They are self-conscious. And I understand that — our culture emphasizes extroversion, the importance of being social and having friends. I guess the thing is, when I’m doing something alone, I never feel a sense of shame — I always have a conviction that I’m being fascinating and adventurous. Surely anyone who notices me is thinking, who is that woman sitting by herself? What is she reading? She looks so chic and sophisticated, all by herself . . . At least, that’s my conviction. But, probably more accurately, I suspect that no one notices or cares. That no one is judging me — everyone around me is simply going on with their lives.

It seems silly, to be ashamed of being alone . . .

This, by the way, is what I had at that final dinner: Hortobágyi Húsos Palacsinta. It’s one of my favorite dishes in the whole wide world, but you can only really get it in Hungary.

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It’s important, at least for me, to be self-reliant. To be able to travel by myself, go into a foreign city with a map and walk around. To figure out exchange rates, visit the museums. Go to restaurants. Ask for help if I need to, laugh when I mess up.

And to be alone.  I love my friends, who are wonderful.  But I also need my alone time; I also need to wander around a city all by myself, looking into shop windows, browsing the bookstores, thinking my own thoughts . . .

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I’ll send with something Ralph said, because he’s good people, is Ralph:

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”

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5 Responses to Self-Reliance

  1. Melissa says:

    My mother often says she admires the way I go off and do things alone, like traveling and visiting museums and the like. I tell her that if I didn’t do things by myself, I’d never leave the house. I’m a grown up, and I’m terminally single, so being a hermit would be the only alternative. I may be an introvert, but I’m not ready for a mountain monastic cell yet!

  2. lpstribling says:

    Reblogged this on L.P.'s and commented:
    Theodora Goss has some nice words to say reflecting on Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

  3. This.
    You are a strong woman, and simply by being yourself, you inspire other people to be strong too.
    I love going out by myself, and have done so a lot in the past. But in the past one year, I’ve found out I’ve become a bit more dependent on company- partly because of the new place I am- and a part of me doesn’t like that dependency.
    So thanks for this post. It was timely.

  4. Well, sure–One arrives alone and leaves alone. ‘Alone’ is as much the central condition of existence as ‘all-one’. Best to be comfortable with that fact.
    Thank you,..abd especially thanks for for this last bit -with two interjections– “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great -women and men- have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now women and men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.” A lofty vision to be sure. One, for me at least. to consider, not to be seduced by.

  5. At first I thought it was because I was an only child, but I notice my three children,
    who are not really children any more, but three different people, all show a tendency
    of being happy alone. To adventure, to research, to find new things. My now head injured son was always a classic loner. And yet we love get-togethers, parties, a fine
    circle of good friends, wound up conversations about it all. But I have that same thing you do, Theodora; I cannot be around people too much. I have to retire all alone to sort out my feelings, to ponder and wonder. You have often brought up exhaustion and I think it is often lack of solitude.

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