To be a nonconformist means dropping our fixation on being seen as a “good” people. In a Christian nation fueled by the myth that we’re all born sinners, this is a tall order.
Weaned on the toxic doctrine of being fallen creatures because we inhabit animal bodies, we’re conditioned to doubt ourselves. Yet as Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us in his famous essay, “Self-Reliance, “He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness but must explore if it is goodness.”
Waldo, as he liked to be called, detested virtue signaling, as it’s known today, and was vigilant to society’s reflexive attempts to manipulate the conscience of its citizens. Cancel culture thrives on this negative cycle. It assumes the worst of other people, refuses mercy, defines individuals by their worst mistakes, and fosters an ideal of virtue that is untenable and damaging. Waldo would have found this hypocritical, even laughable, our habit of posing behind righteous façades, and lobbing shame-grenades at one another, as if we were guiltless. In fact, the push to sanitize one’s social image is anathema to self-reliance. “Your goodness must have some edge to it, else it is none,” he wrote. Also, “a little wickedness is good to make muscle.”
Displays of propriety do not make you virtuous. It is how a man lives his daily experience that displays the truth of his character. Waldo detested sanctimony above all, none more so than that of “good” people who wear virtuous masks in public while being miscreants behind closed doors. Benevolence inveigled by social guilt is harmful to our integrity. He cited the example of public charity, acknowledging the “thousandfold Relief societies” that had cropped up around early 19th century America, and warned that if charity doesn’t begin in the heart, it is a form of moral bribery. “Though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold,” he confessed. Waldo wasn’t railing against generosity, of course, but emphasizing a point about fraudulence. Hypocrisy is perpetuated by conformists doing good for selfish reasons. When “men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation,” they betray their integrity, he believed. “I do not wish to expiate but to live,” Waldo insisted, rejecting the need for penance. “My life is not an apology, but a life.”
It’s worth asking yourself how often you apologize for your choices—and your life. How much time and energy do you waste in worrying about other people’s opinions? Do you label yourself a sinful person, while pretending to be better than you are? These are helpful questions to consider when thinking about your approach to goodness. Over-conscientiousness is a bad sign in a person (like “sticking at gnats,” Waldo believed). No one likes a Goody Two-Shoes. Picayune adherence to nonsensical rules and flourishes of public virtue do not constitute righteousness. Waldo insisted that false displays of benevolence often signal that worse offenses are being covered up. Authentic conscience is the result of locating the virtue within yourself. “Whence is your power? Where does my authority lie? From my non-conformity,” he wrote. “I never listened to your people’s law
or to what they call their gospel and wasted my time. I was content with the simple rural poverty of my own, hence this sweetness.”
He was saying that majority rule must never override your innate sense of equality and justice, especially since consensus reality is so changeable and arbitrary, limited by time, place, and culture. When society contradicts what she knows to be right, it’s up to the individual to be a nonconformist. In other words, you must trust your own experience first. “No law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature,” Waldo explained. “The only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong is what is against it.”
He counseled radical acceptance for the choices we’ve made, and a wide berth when it comes to tolerating our own contradictions. Inconsistency is a virtue, not a tragic flaw, and, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as he famously wrote. There are no straight lines in nature, after all; life proceeds incrementally, by mysterious ways. “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag of a hundred tacks,” he reminds us. Nature’s rhythms are contrapuntal, syncopated, offbeat; she expands and contracts, rises and falls, begins and pauses, in the exuberant natural process of thriving. It’s impossible to subdivide reality into tidy columns as on an Excel spreadsheet; contradictoriness is forever baked into the human equation.
This is an essential point. We can’t respond wisely to life’s shifting demands when we focus on consistency over spontaneity. We’re “predictably irrational” in our behavior for crucial reasons. In the words of one philosopher, “An ape that in any circumstances conceives of a banana as the highest good will be at a constant disadvantage to a creature that is able to assess the importance of a banana depending on the circumstances.” The same is true of human inconsistency. To be overly predictable in an unpredictable world is a deadly disadvantage; habit can easily blind a person to critical changes on the ground. Waldo recommended rebelliousness as a countermeasure for balancing this herdlike mandate to behave, fit in, and repeat ourselves. The rebel is the youth within us, the irrepressible spiritual child.
Indeed, the virtues of youth—spontaneity, flexibility, curiosity, gumption, eagerness for new beginnings—are precious and must be protected, Waldo taught. The young are far more likely not to take no for an answer because somebody, somewhere, for reasons that may or may not be valid, laid down the law for generations to come.
Creativity—including the art of becoming oneself—requires a willingness to move toward the unknown rather than away from it. Without boundary-pushing, impetuousness, and risk-taking, no one can fulfill her potential nor bring her original ideas to fruition. Waldo glorified youthful fecundity, an ideal that is found across spiritual traditions. The mystic child has been celebrated through- out the ages as an archetype of freedom and efflorescence. When we trust this untutored part of ourselves, we come of age spiritually; “the Child is father of the Man,” as Wordsworth wrote.1 The child-self embodies evolutionary growth and the guileless directness children possess before curiosity has been dulled by habit, authenticity erased by obedience. Youthfulness brings openness, vitality, and hunger for experience; it also engenders receptivity to mystery and revelation. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus explains to his followers, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unless we retain a measure of innocence, and cultivate what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” we lose touch with our higher intelligence and the native truth of who we are. Till we drop the know-it-all mask of adulthood, we cannot enjoy the fullness of being.
Nature instructs us to be youthful, bendable, unencumbered by the past. “A man casts off his years as a snake its slough, and at whatever period soever in life, is always a child in the woods, is perpetual youth,” Waldo wrote. Childlike enthusiasm—a word deriving from the Greek for “filled with God”—links us to the electrifying, verdant power of eros, termed veriditas by the thirteenth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. Contact with the evergreen force of the universe revivifies the individual, helps her to thrive, and fends off the inertia that increases with age.
Choosing evolution over submission, we dive into the unspooling flow of the future, which will sometimes oppose the traditional current. Like nature, we have contradictions and keep evolving. Life’s verdancy always appeals to the future. A person who aspires to self-reliance (and excellence) must turn her back on what’s dead and gone and resist the urge to cling to the past. She learns to cultivate youthfulness, joy, and gladness at being alive. Poet E. E. Cummings echoed this sentiment beautifully:
You shall above all things be glad and young/ For if you’re young, whatever life you wear/ it will become you;/and if you’re glad/ whatever’s living will yourself become.16 \
Such gladness fuels the fountain of youth, heals us of the need to be “good,” and drops the mantle of shame from our shoulders.