EmersonIt was in college, I believe, that I first came upon Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exquisite insight that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Brilliant, I thought then, and I think now.

I knew at once, of course, that the key to this philosophic statement is defining what he meant by “foolish,” and then interpreting the word for myself. Is it foolish, for example, to be truthful consistently? Is it foolish to treat others with kindness? Clearly these are not foolish character traits and I think we’d agree that we should be consistently truthful and kind.

So what is a “foolish consistency”? Drinking the same type of tea at the same time each day? Shopping at the same grocery store and buying the same foods over and over again? Taking the same way work each day or watching the same TV show night after night or week after week?

No, nothing like that.

Emerson was thinking bigger thoughts than these. For him, foolish consistencies were deeper issues of mental states and character behaviors. For him, The Foolish Consistency was the power that society held over the individual.

Emerson believed that always doing what was expected of us was the opposite of being true to our nature. He believed too many of us deny the dynamic, fluid capacity within us in an effort to find approval. The goal for us is to break free of the fear of being unconventional and not let the hobgoblins frighten us into a straight-jacket. That’s why Emerson and Thoreau and the Transcendental Movement they began in the mid-Nineteenth Century became the darling of the Hippie period.

Of course, such a phrase can be perverted, it can be used to avoid doing anything you don’t want to do, like writing a blog post every Monday for nearly two years straight. I could call that a foolish consistency and simply not do it anymore. I could decide I don’t want to be nice to certain family members or friends any longer. I could decide I do not want to mow the lawn or cook dinner or any damn thing I don’t want to do.

Or could I?

And that’s really what I’ve been thinking about lately… Who am I exactly? What things are important to me now that I’ve just turned 62? What things are no longer important to my sense of self? And how do I decide? Can I decide?

One would think that so many of the pressures that society uses to control us would fall away when we get older, when we retire, when our bones begin to ache. Some of them do, it’s true. But so many do not. The who that I became over a lifetime of learning and adapting to the world still remains the who that I am.

And if I could become some other person, reacting to the world around me in a new way, would I?  Would you?

ThoreauThat’s a question I find difficult to answer.

When I try to answer it, I think of my favorite quotation from Thoreau…”Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes…”

Now that’s a foolish consistency I seem perfectly able to abide!



One Response to A Foolish Consistency

  1. Elyce Wakerman says:

    Love the Thoreau quote. Good piece.

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