(p. C5) Life compelled Emerson to become something of an expert on resilience. As a young man he lost the love of his life, his wife Ellen, to tuberculosis when she was just 19. His oldest son, Waldo—a joyful child who seemed to concentrate in himself what was most uninhibitedly life-loving in his father—died of scarlet fever when he was 5 years old.
. . .
In the essay “Power,” Emerson writes that we carefully watch children to see if they possess “the recuperative force.” Those who instinctively retire to their rooms in sorrow when they’re slighted, miss the prize or lose the game will be at a serious disadvantage in adult life. “But,” Emerson continues, “if they have the buoyancy and resistance that preoccupies them with new interest in the new moment,—the wounds cicatrize, and the fiber is the tougher for the hurt.”
When Waldo died, Emerson needed that kind of buoyancy and resistance to overcome the greatest sadness of his life.
. . .
Emerson’s resilience was shaped by his conviction that we are mortal and there is no other life than this. Nothing can redeem the time when you did not plunge forward and do what you had to do. The moral quality Emerson commends above all others isn’t love, faith or patriotism but a commitment to work. “But do your work and I shall know you,” he writes in “Self-Reliance.”
Emerson’s commitment to rapid recovery from loss isn’t gentle or humanitarian. But it is classically American in its insistence on affirming the future over the past. For all our faults, Americans are still people who look ahead, scope the territory, move forward. When we fail at something, we give it one more go and maybe get it half right.
For the full essay, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the essay has the date June 18, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)
Emerson’s most famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” can be found in:
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.