“My trade and art is to live.”–Michel de Montaigne
Good for him! How many of us do everything else but live?
It has been the purpose of this blog to promote, not only the gems of classical and modern literature, but also to discover ourselves through them so that we can go out there in the world and actually live our lives.
It’s an attractive sentiment, of course, but the reality is much harder to come by. Scores of obstacles lie between us and the rich, fulfilling lives we are meant to live. The toughest of which is ourselves.
My own journey to self-actuatation has revealed to me this great irony of my existence. Since my late teens, I’ve basked in the idealism of the individual. Something about the subjectivity of the person, the integrity to oneself, and the respect for one’s own thoughts and feelings appealed to my shy sensitivities. Intellectually, I was brave. Yet, (and here comes the important point), I was anything but brave in the real world. Being what people call “painfully shy,” I hardly ever expressed myself. I barely interacted with people, and when I did, what came out was not a strong individualist. Even when I knew I was right, I constantly deferred to other people. I hid what I knew, afraid of standing out, being seen as a snob, weathering criticism, you name it. In my deepest self, I made amends by saying that I could only be myself when I was alone and safe.
I came home. I read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. I read Montaigne’s….well, anything, and I felt the weight of their mild disdain. Talk about literary peer pressure. (Cue the kicking of Montaigne). My mind couldn’t handle the discrepancy between how I felt when alone and how I acted when I was surrounded by society. I thought I was a failure.
And it wasn’t only their essays. Our whole culture seems bent on the individual, “being yourself,” “following your heart.” No room is found for human nature, which is to be a part of a group, to be a team player, giving in to save the whole. To care what your loved ones think about you and whether they accept you, love you as you are (even though you might already accept and love yourself)…
“I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself. I will be rich by myself, and not by borrowing.” —Michel de Montaigne
To be fair, I took it overboard. Entering the social world is one of the most psychologically terrifying things one could experience, but one most not enter it as I did, losing identity to ward off pain and isolation. Yet, what I did was human. We’ve all been there.
I didn’t learn my lessons from Emerson and Montaigne, though. I read, enjoyed, and berated myself with their writings. I lived my life. Then, I read them again, and I finally understood what they meant because life had taught me.
When I did leave myself behind and deferred to others for big decisions, finding that their choices were completely detrimental to my well-being and everything else, I learned the ultimate lesson: It is up to me to determine what is right for me and be brave enough to go after it, no matter how anyone else thinks, even people I love. And I have to speak up about it.
So, while Montaigne tells us that we should be true to ourselves, he also tells us that we need to live. It’s our mistakes that teach us far more than his idealistic scribbling. At the end of the day, literature gives us wisdom. We can study it to learn about ourselves, but the primary source of our wisdom should come from ourselves, our experiences, our thoughts, our feelings.
As the great Montaigne says, “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics and my physics.”