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  • Karl Thunemann

Emerson, the Truth, and Trust

By John Scarborough

I heard in an NPR broadcast yesterday that in a high school somewhere in the U.S., a teacher assigned her English composition students an essay. Please, she said, don’t write about COVID-19. Because everyone writes about that. You need to write something else, something that’s fresh, something that means a great deal to you, personally.

Writing a reflection is a lot like writing an essay. I found it was hard to avoid saying something about COVID-19. Or September’s devastating fires. This is a very short essay.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a lot about truth.

“History cannot bring enlightenment,” he wrote. “Only individual searching can.” We accept a lot without thinking. We even accept the term “critical thinking” without thinking critically. What you find and establish on your own as true, though, really sticks, and becomes yours.

Truth, according to Emerson, is inside us. That gives truth its authority.

Have we forgotten what we thought we had learned? Knowing that we forgot it means we can learn it again, but this time our knowledge will be stronger, and broader. This time, we will know how it connects to the rest of our world, to people we may not even know, to our heart and to our mind. Relying on institutions may disappoint us. We need to do the work on our own.

Emerson’s essay on self-reliance backs up his counsel, “Trust thyself.” But that’s not enough. We need to inquire, to question, not only others but ourselves. "Unless,” he says, “we overtake ourselves, circumstances will overtake us".

If I were to improve on that essay, I would only have made a slight emendation: “Strive to understand what is true, the better to trust yourself.”

John Scarborough


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