The Emphatic Trifles of the World

One of my favorite passages from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Self-Reliance, is this one:
"At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles."

Importune means "to disturb with urgent or insistent or repeated requests."

I love that phrase, "emphatic trifles." The importuning never seems to stop. You want to get on with your work, with the purpose of your life, but the world keeps interrupting you with its urgent but (as far as your own purposes are concerned) unimportant requests.

Emerson gives an answer to the problem. The whole passage goes like this:
"At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, 'Come out unto us,' — Do not spoil thy soul; do not all descend; keep thy state; stay at home in thine own heaven; come not for a moment into their facts, into their hubbub of conflicting appearances but let in the light of thy law on their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act."

In other words, I am cooperating with the world when it importunes me. I collaborate. I give in to those repeated requests for my attention, and then I feel put upon by them.

There's something wrong there. A lie is being told. Either I should fully choose the interruption, or I should not allow it. But it is false (and therefore destined to produce unsolvable problems) if I willingly allow a friend, client, child, desire, or whatever to disturb me and then bemoan the fact that I'm not able to fulfill my own purposes.

Choose. And then stand by your choice. That is a way to keep your integrity when the world importunes you with emphatic trifles.

Another interesting phrase in that longer passage is, "let in the light of thy law on their confusion." Emerson is talking about your own law, the law of your being. As he says elsewhere in Self-Reliance, "High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others," and Emerson also points out that this is not simply "doing what feels good." Being a law unto yourself takes a lot of self-discipline. It is difficult to follow what your own conscience dictates.

He's talking about integrity. He's saying, be yourself and do what you really want, make the effort to "keep thy state," to be who you are, to keep your integrity, and your own shining self-reliance will help them clear their own minds and consciences. Your example of integrity will shed light for them on their own confusion.

This is ultimately the way to free yourself from the tyranny of the emphatic trifles of the world. Keep thy state. Do your thing, no matter how insistently the world knocks on your door and wants you to do somebody else's thing. Follow your own path and stay true to yourself. Let in the light of thy law on their confusion.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated and Principles For Personal Growth. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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