I love when I read something that sums things up and make me go "wow, that's exactly right". I also love quotes or statements that cause me to go "what the heck does that mean?" and forces me to think. I think the hallmark of all of the great thinkers is not so much their ability to think but their ability to make you think. Although I am only really superficially familiar with his work whenever I encounter a quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson I have generally had to stop and think. If you aren't familiar with him, Emerson is considered by most to be the leader of the transcendental movement in America. He was an essayist, poet and lecturer. The quote below is from his essay Self-Reliance, likely his most well-known work. I'm making a study of his work a future endeavor of mine but sometimes I feel there is a certain advantage to coming to my own conclusions and then reading the work of the great thinkers after I have done my own thinking.
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of simple minds". It does have further context but this is the sentence that is commonly repeated. A well-known quote that I first heard years ago, and that suddenly I'm hearing quite frequently. This tells me it's important and I should pay attention to it, that there is something to be learned there.
I have been giving great consideration to these words as of late. I have a somewhat vague idea of what I think Emerson meant to say but somehow explaining it seems to elude me. I thought I might try to apply it in a practical way to the things I've been trying to accomplish in my life. That maybe by putting it in practical terms I could explain what I feel that Emerson meant us to learn from that sentence.
These goals of mine include familiar themes. They include exercising regularly and eating healthier food, becoming a better parent, writing regularly, and being more patient, understanding, kind, and compassionate. I thought maybe the best way to approach this would be to take each of these things and see how I could find out if the wisdom of Emerson's observation could be applied in a practical sense.
Let's start with the first of my goals, exercising and eating healthier. The diet industry is a multi billion dollar industry. Everybody has a plan. Eat carbs, don't eat carbs, eat green, eat your colours, eat only bananas for breakfast, eat only grapefruit for lunch, high glycemic, low glycemic, no glycemic. Then throw in the exercise plans, Tao-Bo, Yoga-Belly-Booty-Ballet, the all too familiar "movie star/model puts out an exercise video that guarantees you will be 5ft 11 and 102 lbs in six weeks" And of course none of it works because we can't stick to it. It's too hard to do. We are trying to form new habits. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form. And in this whole thing is the foolish consistency. Diets fail because we aren't consistent. Exercise plans fail because we fail to stick to them. Consistence seems like the key but if it is then why is it so hard to be consistent? I think it's because consistency isn't natural. I think Emerson is right when I apply it to diet. He's on to something. Consistency forces us to do something that doesn't feel right. What if we aren't supposed to be consistent? What if that's a completely wrong concept? And if it is, now what? What are we supposed to do? Keep eating the Krispie Kremes, continue vegetating on the couch in front of reality TV, living vicariously through Gene Simmons Family Jewels and the Bachelor? I don't think so. I think that we are supposed to exercise and we are supposed to eat good healthy food. But we aren't supposed to make a job of it. We aren't supposed to make it that important. I'm sucking on a lollipop. My daughter just offered it to me and I wanted it. I refuse to care that I've broken some diet rule because there should be no rules, just guidelines, and secondly, because I have a huge pot of rice and beans full of nutrition waiting for my dinner and I've had a nice relaxing walk today in the sunshine and my life is in balance. And I may or may not do that tomorrow. And if, over the course of the next few weeks, month and years I continue to live in a balanced, healthy way, most of the time, with very little effort that will translate into physical wellness.
Let's try the second one on my list. Writing regularly. This I have found hard to do. I have gone months without putting pen to paper. Yet, I love to write. Writing is my thing. So a while ago I decided that I would write every day. That put incredible pressure on me and then when I would sit down to write I would be blocked. My writing wasn't natural and I didn't enjoy it the same. So then I decided to let it go, to only write as much as I felt like and to not worry about what came out of my head, to just put things on paper. Now I sit when I feel like it and I wait for inspiration. Today I was walking and thinking about what to write about and the quote from Emerson stuck in my mind. That's quite telling. The writing began on my walk, not when I was at my desk. If I had stuck to my original determination to sit and write every day, make it a priority over all other things and to not do anything else until I had written something wonderful, witty and wise, I would have missed my walk. It's much easier to write now that I feel myself letting go and letting life pull me along instead of trying to arrange it all.
What about parenting? The common advice given to make your children behave is to be consistent. Stick to it. Once you've taken a stance you have to stand by it even if you realise thirty minutes later that you were wrong, you can't let them see you back down because then you have no power and they will have won and your children will end up in the penitentiary eventually and it will be all your fault because you weren't consistent. Of course this is foolish. Ever hear of a power struggle? Rigid consistency is the maker of all power struggles. I think if consistency is to have any place in parenting it's within the context of being reliable as a parent. Being someone your children can count on, being consistent in your acceptance of who they are as little human beings, wiser in their own innocence than any adult. I think it's the height of foolishness to try to contain that with rigid consistency for the sake of maintaining the power that we as parents automatically have anyway by virtue of being older and bigger.
On to the third grouping, some virtues I need to work on cultivating. They are patience, understanding, kindness and compassion. These are the exceptions to the rule I thought. These are things we have to do to become closer to God and our fellow man. As I'm meditating on this quote I start to believe this is where Emerson's words fall short. Don't we need to be consistent in acting in kind, understanding, patient and compassionate ways? Isn't that where we ought to practice consistency? Is this the exception? Not quite. I realise that what we can do is allow the opportunities to practice these virtues to flow to us and not be constrained by our own thoughts as to how we can be compassionate. If you do not have any money to give to the poor, give clothing to good will, if you do not have time to volunteer at a shelter or you have small children that prevent you from getting out in the community, give money to the Salvation Army at Christmas time. If you are in the house and can't get out, write a letter, send an email to a friend, call someone to let them know you are thinking of them. You can be inconsistent in your consistence. One day you may let another driver out before you go, or you might buy a coffee for a homeless person. The next you might take care of your sick child. Maybe Emerson is still right.
So now I have to conclude. Which is it? Are we supposed to be consistent? Are we supposed to just float along? Is Emerson incorrect? Does this quote, which at first glance, seem to be filled with truth, not hold up when applied practically? It doesn't appear to. Yes, we should practice consistency in some things but in other things it would seem we should stay the course as much as we possibly can. So is the quote worthless? Did Ralph Waldo Emerson make a mistake? Ralph, what were you thinking?
The answer of course is no. He didn't make a mistake. What Emerson said was that"a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of simple minds". This is key. We have to be wise. When consistency serves us we should try to remain steadfast. Of course we should aim for a consistency when it comes to being kind, compassionate, patient and understanding. Practicing a consistency of virtues is a wise thing. But should we fail we should just let go and move on. So we don't need to exercise every day, just do something, walk one day, run the next. Do yoga for a week, then do Pilate's. Walk, ice skate. Do what you feel like that day. Strive to do your best. So I ate a lollipop, it was good and I enjoyed it. I'm not a failure because I didn't keep to a consistent healthy diet. And the irony is the more I hold on to the idea that I shouldn't eat this and I should run every day, the less I do and conversely when I let go of these ideas and allow myself to flow along, exercise as much as I can and eat as well as I can I find that I have more success in maintaining a healthier lifestyle.
Let go of the rules. Float along in the world, know that things are going along as they should and look for opportunities to be a positive force along the way. But avoid the "shoulds" because there is nothing you should be doing other than what you are doing right now.
The peace in knowing you are no longer practicing a foolish consistency will do wonders to free you from the limitations that held you back in the past. Let it go, let your mind grow, see the possibilities and embrace them. We are free if we choose to banish the thoughts of what we should be doing from our minds and completely immerse ourselves in what we are, in this moment doing, and choose consciously to be happy doing it.
My friend Ralph nailed it. He also said "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know". This is what I know.
Oh, and one more thing. Isn't hobgoblin the coolest word ever?