Ralph Waldo Emerson was not among my favourite writers in my youth. I think that was precisely the problem – youth. In order to understand and appreciate Emerson you need a certain amount of life experience, a few battle scars in your soul, and the ability to appreciate what a conflict-free period actually means. If you do not carry any of these on your armour, Emerson’s words remain distant, Utopian, and at its best, literary. But in order for his words to truly move the innermost being, you need to have lived pain and sorrow.
“To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”
He speaks to those of us who are older, perhaps a little wiser than we were 30 years ago, and gives a gentle nudge towards retrospection. OK, maybe not so gentle. These lines I share with you today have held me captive for a few hours now.
To laugh often and much: I miss doing that. It seems to me that my world is full of frowns and tears at the moment, and I truly miss the lightness that comes after a good laugh with a friend. I have laughed generously and genuinely, but there are fewer and fewer opportunities and reasons to do so.
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children: Now this is a tough one. Earning someone’s respect on the moral and emotional platform is one thing, a fundamental pillar in any relationship deemed worthy of being part of my life. But to earn the respect of intelligent people is a tall order. Intelligence is relative, no arguing about that, and it all depends on the standards you pursue and apply in your life. This inevitably includes your professional space – earning the respect of your colleagues and superiors, and peers in the field. It is not enough to co-exist and get the task done. In my book you need to prove your worth and offer the world substance. As to winning the affection of children, that involves a lifetime. Just because they are your children doesn’t mean that they harbour any affection for you, especially if you don’t nurture it. Living with a person does not automatically mean loving them and if we as parents don’t give them reasons to respect and love us back, it remains a hollow bond that is easily severed and betrayed.
To earn the appreciation of honest critics: it is so easy to criticise others, but to offer constructive criticism or even criticise something without hurting the other person or destroying them completely, THAT is a quality few master. Conversely, learning to receive criticism is just as important. Whose criticism matters? Whose do you ignore?
and endure the betrayal of false friends: sadly and painfully, betrayal is part and parcel of any human interaction. It takes years and experience to sift through the true and false friends, and in the end you realise that the false friends are many more than the true ones.
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others: Beauty, like friendship, is a very personal matter. I object violently to society and media dictating what the beauty standards are. It takes a strong person to go against the current an stand by his or her own beauty standards. Finding the best in others is also a personal perspective. My opinion on what the best qualities of one person may not necessarily be shared by the next, not to mention that our perspectives are moulded by personal experience.
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition: this is a point that is always part of my yearly checklist. Life isn’t just about me, or co-existing with I, Me, and Myself. It has everything to do about doing good to others and making a contribution to the community. What will be your legacy?
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived: sometimes we will never know the truth and the true extent of our actions. If you are lucky, the person whose life you touch will tell you upfront how you made a difference. Sometimes you only find out after they die. I for one, keep a lot buried in my heart, both pain and appreciation alike.
I end with another nugget of wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”