“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson, a prominent 19th Century American essayist, lecturer, and poet was known for his promotion of the concept of individualism. I don’t know the context in which he wrote or spoke these words, so I will speak to them as they impacted me.
He begins with the idea of what lies behind us – certainly our past experiences, but in light of the rest of the passage, I’m thinking that he means past accomplishments. It is only human nature to think back to moments of triumph when we embarked upon a struggle and succeeded. We can derive great satisfaction from remembrances such as these. They are a source of pride, and rightly, contribute to our sense of self-respect and confidence.
As well, he may also referring to the learning we have gained from life’s lessons. Unfortunately, we don’t always learn from our mistakes, and sometimes, make the same errors time and again. What came to mind as I wrote this statement, is something a friend once said to me, “You know, you’re too honest!” I take pride in that because as a kid in elementary school I would lie at every opportunity to get out of trouble. At some point, I learned that I never got away with the lies I told, and they demeaned me as a person (no, I didn’t know what that meant at the time). So I do remember resolving to be honest at all times. I also remember that it was a tough lesson – and I’ve never regretted it.
Emerson also speaks to what lies ahead of us. I interpret that to mean our dreams and goals – what we want to accomplish, the challenges we work to overcome, and the triumphs we work toward. These plans for our immediate and distant future are critically important. If we don’t set realistic goals and devise solid plans to achieve them, then what will happen to us? We will drift, allowing ourselves to be carried along by the prevailing currents or winds. We leave our lives to chance – or more accurately, we leave our lives in the hands of those who would use us for their own ends. I have an intense dislike for users… trolls… and yet, if we don’t take charge, set our goals and dream of a brighter future, we empower them.
All the good that we have accomplished, and all the good things we are striving toward, pale in comparison to what lies inside of us, Emerson asserts. What does he mean? He subscribed to the idea that a person is a treasure unto him or herself. The individual is worthy of great respect in his own right – not because of his accomplishments or his aspirations – but because he is. I am special! I am unique! I have gifts! I do not need to earn respect from myself or others, but rather I am an individual person, a unique life, and therefore I am to be prized.
The religious person may well interpret Emerson’s assertion in light of a person’s immortal soul – gifted from God when we were created. I don’t have a problem with that view, but I tend to view people as special because of our inner spirit, not because God created us. We have free will. We are intelligent beings. We can communicate. We can learn. We can love and perform tremendous acts of kindness. We have all of this potential because of what is within us. Our spirit makes us who we are – worthy of respect, praise, and love. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, I salute and celebrate the individual!