On Ambiguity: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Living with Abandon

Friday, March 28, 2014 - 5:59am
Photo by Brent Stirton

On Ambiguity: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Living with Abandon

"The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment. The great moments of history are the facilities of performance through strength of ideas, as the works of genius and religion. 'A man,' said Oliver Cromwell, 'never rises so high — as when he knows not whither he is going.'"

~Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay "Circles"


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Mariah Helgeson

is a digital editor at On Being. She earned a degree in International Affairs with concentrations in the Middle East and Conflict Resolution from George Washington University. She grew up in Minnesota and was a program associate at the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. When she’s not submerged in a good book she might be found laughing with her teenage sisters or playing chamber music.

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Oh how I would love to live fully without abandonment. Somehow as we age, we over analyze everything. Fear somehow always presents itself. I remember the poem If I could live my life over again, i would dance in the rain, I would use the good china everyday ... in other words, living with out abandon. I resolve to work on that and go withy passions.


I have really enjoyed the thoughtfulness (and thought-provoking content) of these blog posts, particularly the piece on Brene Brown and the one on whale songs/Simone Weil. In this one case, however, I find the Oliver Cromwell quotation in the context of "great moments in history" a little troubling as an argument for living with abandon (even if it is embedded in a passage by a proto-anarcho-pacifist). Cromwell's legacy in Ireland may be proof that military commanders who forget themselves, are surprised out of their own propriety and rise high by not knowing wither they are going are very dangerous people. I believe in the abandon -- it's the abandon-er I object to. Maybe we gloss over the details too easily sometimes?

“While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. there were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, "It makes a difference for this one." I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.”
― Loren Eiseley